“Boring” is one of the kinder things that can be said about conventions of the American Philosophical Association. That these meetings are arduous ordeals for newly minted PhDs seeking academic jobs goes without saying; but I’ve heard even comfortably tenured professors describe APA conventions as “brutal.” At the APA Central Division Meeting a couple of weeks ago in St. Louis, though, there was a vital break in the brutality.
One of the big events at each APA meeting is the John Dewey Lecture. As the blurb for the lecture has it, “Each Dewey lecture is given by a prominent and senior American philosopher who is invited to reflect, broadly and in an autobiographical spirit, on philosophy in America.” In St. Louis, philosopher Peter Railton rose to the task.
The first part of his lecture is, among other things, a wonderful memoir of what it was like to be young in 1960s. He provides a dramatic first-person account of the unrest at Harvard in April 1969. There are the to-be-expected reflections on his career as a philosopher and his personal views on the current status of the field. He refers to the recent research on the “ideology of brilliance” in academic philosophy and the relation of that ideology to male dominance of the field. But the reason Railton’s being so widely praised for his “selfless courage” right now is the final topic he takes up: his own struggles with depression, and how he sees that as connected to his philosophical activity.
From my later days as a young faculty member . . . working with graduate students and colleagues, I got a sense of the moral world as deeply intertwined with affect as well as deliberation and action. Indeed, I have come to believe that the world of cognition is no less steeped in affect. That’s as it should be, I now realize, since affect is the mind’s way of registering appreciation—of evidence, of the importance of a fact, of the value of an action, of the goodness of a life. Most of things I blame myself for in life I did from fear of social embarrassment and humiliation—this has been a much more effective deterrent than clubs or threats in keeping me from doing the right thing. Reasoning has certainly helped me try to address these fears, but reasoning has done an almost equally good job of rationalizing my failures to overcome them. When I have managed to overcome this fear, it is because an appreciation of the values and ideals and lives at stake got the better of my over-socialized self—I felt, and not merely thought, I had to act.And from my quiet hours listening to my teachers as I myself was becoming a teacher, has finally come a resolve. It is fear of just such social embarrassment and humiliation that have kept me from calling depression by its right name. Here is yet another way of being an outsider, another way of being shut off from life. As academics, we live in its midst. We know how it hurts our students, our colleagues, our teachers, our families. Of course, most of us are “educated” about depression—we like to think that we no longer consider it a stain on one’s character. We’ve gotten beyond that. Or have we?”
. . . .
Then why do the words stick in my throat when I tell you that another theme uniting the three episodes I have recounted from my life, and that has played an equally important role in shaping my philosophy, is that they were all accompanied by my depression. This moody high school student, this struggling protester, this anxious young faculty member—they were all me and they were all living through major depressive episodes at the time.
He concludes with a moving plea for the destigmatization of mental illness, and for personal candor:
What does it say to our students or colleagues, how does it contribute their ability to seek care, or to escape a sense of utter loneliness and inability to make it out the other side, if even grey grown-ups like me with established careers and loving families can’t be open about the depression that has so deeply shaped our lives, and who can make it clear by our very selves, there’s real help, you can make it, it’s worth it, you’re worth it.Perhaps if enough of us, of all ages and walks of life, parents, children, brothers, co-workers, spouses, relatives, deans and directors, tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, can be open about our passages through mental illness, a shadowy stigma will fade away in the broad light of day. We must call it mental illness because that’s what it is, illness that takes up residence in the mind, but no more of the essence of a person than any other illness. . . . Perhaps if enough us who’ve lived with depression pitch in and do our small bit, the true face of depression will at last be visible: it looks like all of us … only with some cells that won’t behave, so let’s do what we can to fix or manage that.
The complete text of the lecture is available here. So far as I can trace it, the current social media buzz started when Janice Dowell posted on Facebook about her reaction to hearing Railton: “I am completely unashamed to report that I openly wept.” Jan’s post was mentioned on the DailyNous blog, and she followed up with a longer description of the lecture: “It was easily the bravest and most moving talk I have ever attended. He received two standing ovations, the first following the talk and the second after his gracious answers to our questions. Our profession owes him our deep gratitude for his selfless courage.” It’s led to discussions at Leiter Reports and Splintered Mind, and the story has been reported on in a widely republished article at InsideHigherEd. There’s a thread at Dailynous where academic philosophers are describing their own experiences with depression.
After writing all that, I feel compelled to rise to Railton’s challenge. I’ve suffered from chronic depression since very early childhood, although I didn’t have that label for it until much later in life. I began taking effective antidepressant medication at the age of 36, when I was immersed in writing a philosophy dissertation. Experiencing for the first time what it’s like not to be depressed, I was gained some insight into how deeply my passion for philosophy was intertwined with that illness. That’s something I’m still learning about.
I never finished the dissertation. I did get a lot of work done on it, and in many ways that was the high point of my philosophical education. I certainly learned more about the subject during those two years than I did during all the grad school seminars I took. And even that wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the medication. Before I started taking the happy pills, I had gotten to the point where I had to leave my apartment in order to eat. If I tried eating a meal at my own kitchen table, within a couple of minutes I would jump up, grab a pen and legal pad, start compulsively scribbling, and be unable to finish eating. (Depression has been a lifelong condition; OCD was the unique contribution of graduate education to my diagnosis.)
I’ll conclude with suggesting one area in which the experience of depression raises philosophical questions. In recent years, there’s been a lot of discussion of Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson’s theory of depressive realism: the idea that depressed people actually have a more accurate perception of the way things are. The original research compared judgments made by depressed and nondepressed subjects of their own degree of causal efficacy in certain laboratory experiments. The findings have been extended and widely debated in the psychological literature; Eric Schwitzgabel has commented on some of the implications for philosophers in his post on Railton’s lecture. I’m most interested, though, in the broader consequences for philosophical accounts of value. With apologies to Camus, Leibniz, and Heidegger, let me propose the following thesis for discussion:
The only really serious philosophical question is “Why is anything worth doing at all?”
The illustration is a detail from Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514).
We have several Not School groups running this month, but before I tell you about them, a word to the unfamiliar: If you’ve enjoyed the podcast episodes, becoming a PEL Citizen is an easy and inexpensive way to get involved firsthand in similarly stimulating conversations. I can vouch that these study groups are rewarding, relaxed, and very helpful in getting a grip on difficult subject matter.
First up, there is an aftershow for the Gadamer episode planned for Sunday 3/8. Stephen West and Seth Paskin will be in on this one, so Citizens who sign up can keep the conversation going with both of them. See the group’s page for more details, and if you want to get a feel for what these are like, take a listen to a preview from the Whitehead aftershow here.
Following last month’s Slavoj Zizek group, we have a new group set to read another of his, The Sublime Object of Ideology. If you’re interested in joining up with them, you can seek membership via their page here.
Our group reading Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed will be having a discussion in mid-March; it’s not too late for you to join. If examining the relationship between knowledge and power sounds intriguing to you, go look them up here.
The Philosophy and Theatre Group plans to read selections from Philip Auslander’s From Acting to Performance: Essays in Modernism and Postmodernism. This may be coupled with a study of some work by The Wooster Group, but the exact selections and works are still being nailed down. New members are welcome!
Our Philosophical Fiction Group is scheduled to tackle a modernist cornerstone in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Woolf reportedly believed this was the best of her novels, so join up with the group and see if you feel the same.
There are still a few proposals that need another participant or two to get them started. As of now, these include works by Kant and Adorno, Michel de Montaigne, and Emmanuel Levinas. You can look the threads up in the Citizens’ Forum if any of those sound appealing to you, and don’t forget that you can always propose a new group on a topic of your choosing.
That’s it so far this month. Enjoy your reading, everyone.
- Daniel Cole
Everyone with experience as a humanities professor is aware of the “it’s all relative” mantra of college freshmen. Justin McBrayer believes that their moral relativism in particular — the fact that they don’t believe in “moral facts” — is attributable to lapses in their K-12 public schooling.
I doubt it.
Like the philosopher Michael Sandel, I see such relativism as an unintended consequence of liberalism; not, like Sandel, as a logical consequence, but rather as a function of the natural tendency of the liberal ethos, and the open mindedness it requires, to decompose into their opposites. Attempts to embody a skeptical suspension of judgment at a political and cultural level (separation of church and state, freedom of speech, etc.) are easily lost in democratic translation, and transformed culturally into “man is the measure of all things.” There is the further factor here that how we can say that normative claims are true or false is intuitively far more puzzling (and traditionally has been the greater epistemological challenge in philosophy) than grounding non-normative claims. So it should be no surprise that moral claims seem less epistemologically secure to students than empirical and scientific claims: many philosophers believe the same thing.
“It’s all relative” is just the way that college kids try and fail to live up to their egalitarian (and proto-skeptical) impulses. As exasperating as it can be to philosophers, it’s also salvageable: not by demanding that students yield unquestioningly to the dogma that there are such things as moral facts (because it is not obvious that there are); but by leading them to see that moral relativism is just as philosophically problematic as moral realism.
McBrayer conflates moral anti-realism and moral relativism, and I didn’t attempt to untangle this distinction in this post. Suffice it to say it’s moral relativism I’m referring to as standing in opposition to open-mindedness, which I connect with a certain kind of skepticism (“zetetic skepticism,” associated with Pyrrhonism) involving the suspension of judgment (and what Keats called “negative capability”). That’s because the outcome of relativism is that any assertion I like will do, leading to a kind of lazy dogmatism. Moral anti-realism, however is a coherent philosophical position that I allude to toward the end of the first paragraph. The point is that there is a psychological relationship between moral relativism and positions like liberalism, zetetic skepticism, and moral anti-realism: moral relativism tends to get conflated with them. This does not mean I’m endorsing this conflation. Relativism is actually a dangerous foe to liberalism. So it’s an unfortunate irony that liberal impulses so easily degrade into relativistic ones.
On Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1960, ch. 4), “Aesthetics and Hermeneutics” (1964), “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem” (1966), and “Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy” (1972).
Hemeneutics is all about interpretation, primarily of texts, but of other things too, and Gadamer thinks that even if we learn all about the history and customs and probable authorial mindset of a text, there’s still not a single, correct interpretation. We can’t just put aside our prejudices to get to such an objective truth, and in fact without the baggage we bring to a text, we have no purchase from which to begin an interpretation.
Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan try to get through all this rich material, discussing science vs. philosophy (again!), modern art, what it is to be practical, and lots more. Read more about the topic and get the texts.
End song: “The Default Relation,” a new song by Mark Lint. Read about it.
Make sure to join us for the Aftershow on March 8 at 4pm central. Go sign up to participate!
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The Gadamer picture is by Sterling Bartlett.
Listen to “The Default Relation” (or right-click/shift-click this link to download). WARNING: This has a lot of swearing in it.
This is a brand new song, and my first country song in a while, for which I quickly drafted a country band consisting of Chris Chamis on drums and Ben Kelly on lead guitar and keys.
It was inspired both by reflecting on failures of communication, i.e. the wrong way to do hermeneutics, the way to not listen to people, and also by being irritated by the ever-present red vs. blue, north vs. south, urban vs. rural, Republican vs. Democrat crap that defines our political discourse.
This is both the lyrical subject and the actual style of performance, i.e. appropriating country music to kind of make fun of it (which is certainly not new, and much country music is so playful/crazy and aware of its own cliches that it’s hard to tell what’s self-mockery and what’s bad-assery). The hostility of, like, that guy in the news a while back who as all in arms against the government trying to stop him from illegally grazing his cattle, and Fox News that gave him a forum (for a bit) are alike incomprehensible to me, and the hostility I voice in this song is both what I’m hearing from them and how they make me want to react. It’s a bad, bad situation, and unless good hermeneutics spreads like wildfire, I don’t see an end to it any time soon.
Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialism, which says that matter does not exist, is one of those slightly famous moments in the history of philosophy. As the story goes, Johnson and his friends stood outside a church and complained about “Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter.” They did not believe the idea but did not see a way to refute it. As James Boswell reports it, Johnson answered with great enthusiasm. He kicked or stomped a large stone and declared, “I refute it thus.” As see it, such a demonstration only shows that Johnson did not understand the substance of the matter.
What matters about matter is that it’s a certain kind of substance, which is to say that matter is refutable and problematic because it is taken as something underlying or standing below (sub-stance) the outward appearances, such as the hardness and heaviness of Johnson’s rock. In other words, “substance” is a metaphysical reality, not an empirical or phenomenal reality. Johnson only confirmed the latter, which was not in dispute in the first place. The point is not to defend Berkeley or Idealism but rather to simply unpack this stuff called substance. Pragmatists like William James and Robert Pirsig both reject what the latter called “the metaphysics of substance” – and not just physical substance but also mental substance – so I’ll rely on them to help unpack this notion. Let’s start with Charles Sanders Peirce’s “canonical statement,” as the Stanford Encyclopedia describes it, from his essay titled ‘How to Make our Ideas Clear’. (James approvingly quoted this pithy formula):
Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object.
As the SEP article explains, this was the central proposition of Pragmatism and it was meant to be used, among other things, “as a tool for criticism, demonstrating the emptiness of a priori “ontological metaphysics” and “to undermine spurious metaphysical ideas.” Oddly, perhaps, Pierce deployed this pragmatic principle to show “that the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation was empty and incoherent.” Just as it is with Johnson’s rock, the bread and the wine is identified by a certain set of distinctive features found in experience, by a particular set of effects on the senses so, Pierce says, “to talk of something as having all the sensible characters of wine, yet being in reality blood, is senseless jargon”. The doctrine of transubstantiation (please notice the root word “substance”) says that the bread and wine still look and taste exactly like bread and wine but its underlying substance, which can never be experienced or sensed, has been transformed into the body and blood of Christ. The point is not to dispute theological doctrines but to fully illustrate the difference between empirically knowable rocks and the unknowable material substance that supposedly lurks beneath.
Physicalism or scientific realism is often taken as non-metaphysical or even as anti-metaphysical but it certainly counts as metaphysics, as a metaphysics of substance. And to the extent that empirical science is predicated on metaphysical substances, it’s going beyond the empirical world and beyond the proper domain of science. The pragmatists weren’t rejecting religion or science as such. Far from it. But they do have very strong reservations about metaphysical claims, claims about essences, or about the things-in-themselves. In the application of the scientific method, Pierce, who was as hard-nosed as a Positivist, said that…
Almost every proposition of ontological metaphysics is either meaningless gibberish–one word being defined by other words, and they by still others, without any real conception ever being reached–or else is downright absurd; so that all such rubbish being swept away, what will remain of philosophy will be a series of problems capable of investigation by the observational methods of the true sciences.
Illustration by James Asher at There Are Real Things.
This post in the first in a new series on Science, Technology, and Society. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook.
What is science?
In general, answers to this question fall between two poles. The first is the traditional view of science–that it is a process of discovery which, performed correctly, faithfully reveals the mysteries of the universe. Science produces objective knowledge, and that is why it is special. The second, which dates roughly to the 1960’s, holds that science is a social process which invents, rather than discovers, models of the universe. Like any human activity, it is governed by institutions and assumptions that are historically conditioned, and there for contingent. According to this way of thinking, context matters in science for the same reasons it matters everywhere else – because we are bound by time and space, circumstance and personality, and cannot escape their limitations.
Scholars have come together to explore the nature of science in a relatively new field called Science, Technology, and Society (STS). It attempts to address questions that surround science. For instance, what is the difference between science and pseudoscience? When we have competing theories, and they both explain the evidence, how do we choose between them? How have inventions and theories transformed our lived experience, and the course of history? Which conditions help scientists do their work, and which hinder them? Why does science work? When it doesn’t, why doesn’t it? Does gender, race, and class meaningfully effect a researcher’s work? If so, is that a good thing that we want to encourage, or a bad thing we want to suppress?
Given the tremendous prestige of science in our culture, and the power its theories give us, these are important questions. In this series, I would like to explore contemporary perspectives on this activity, which is so central to our every day lives.
“We cannot command nature except by obeying her.”
Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) was an English aristocrat, lawyer, and parliamentarian, who was also, in his spare time, one of the most influential philosophers who ever lived. In The New Organon (1620) he outlined a new approach to philosophy, which historians call the Baconian Program, and which the world calls Science. Its main components were:
1. Emphasis on eliminative induction (i.e. establishing what is not true) on the basis of observation and experiment, collaborative effort, and the systematic accumulation, organization, and communication of information. (The traditional method in philosophy was additive deduction – that is to say, positively affirming what is true, on the basis of known principles and individual reason.) The approach to philosophy which Bacon advocated was institutional rather than individual – it envisaged a vast cooperative effort extending across kingdoms and cultures and generations, in order to systematize all knowledge, and also to expand it.
2. Avoidance of metaphysics, theology, politics, and ethics (the traditional concerns of philosophy.) According to Bacon, the questions raised in these fields form no part of his philosophical project, because they are incapable of resolution through experiment or observation.
3. Rigorous application of reason in order to minimize the pernicious influence of faulty habits of thought, which he called Idols of the Mind. He divided these into Idols of the Tribe, the Theater, the Cave, and the Market Place (i.e. those arising from human nature, from social convention, from personal attachment, and from language.) Clear, rigorous thinking was to be essential, and could only be achieved by dissociating oneself from one’s particular context of time and place.
4. Application of knowledge thus gained for the improvement of life through mastery over nature, summed up in his famous dictum “Knowledge is Power.” Science thus had a moral quality – that of improving the human condition. The pursuit of science was itself to be a moral activity, and, indeed, the quintessential moral activity of the Enlightenment.
Bacon’s New Organon was written as a response to the Organon of Aristotle, and was thus an implicit challenge to the intellectual orthodoxies of his time, for whom Aristotle was the philosopher. It was written toward the end of his life, and he did not live to see its success in the following generation. According to legend he caught pneumonia while experimenting with snow. However, his philosophy inaugurated what has since been called The Age of Reason.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society in Nineteenth century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
The Philosiologist has some useful information that readers of this blog may want to share with their friends and loved ones.
She describes the phenomenon:
I don’t know how many times we’ve been at a philosophy party when I wander back to my philosopher after making the rounds of conversation with other non-philosophers, I discover that he is in heated and angry-sounding discussion with other philosophers. When it’s all over, though, everyone is happy and joking and full of philosophy intoxication.
She points to the horrendous consequences:
My sister nearly threw the phone at me, in tears, and left the room. My philosopher, on the other hand, was in an absolutely superb mood.
What just happened? My sister was the unfortunate survivor of a philosopher-attack.
She offers sage advice:
Turn the conversation around on them and say something like, “I don’t really understand this problem well. Why don’t you explain to me what you think the best answer is?”
This may not work on some philosophers, but can work marvelously on arrogant (or unaware) ones. After all, it is very hard for almost every philosopher to resist the sirens’ call of “Please tell me what you think is correct in this philosophical argument,” so the more arrogant among the philosophers, who already love to talk about philosophy, will be more than happy to indulge to you what they think. Some philosophers do not fall for this trick, though.
And, most important, she offers hope:
It is also worth noting that as you get better about redirecting philosopher-attacks, you might be able to train your philosopher to not be so thirsty for blood when she/he enters into philosophical discussion with you. Philosophers, like other humans, can be trained effectively, if you are patient.
“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”
O’Connor writes about characters in crisis, and while she is known as a ‘Christian author’, her stories never shy away from the terrible, like the con-man in ‘Good Country People’ or the brutal death in ‘Greenleaf’. The Misfit in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ is no exception, one of O’Connor’s best villains who’s considered evil makes this story’s final scene worth reading.
You can hear O’Connor read her own story below (thanks to Open Culture for the link):
Philosophical Fiction is part of ‘Not School’ from the Partially Examined Life, we choose a new story each month for a live conversation on the truth in fiction. We review the plot, discuss the story, quote key passages, and spoil everything.
As a PEL Citizen, you can listen to our Philosophical Fiction conversations in Free Stuff, and I’d recommend:
“Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy (with special guest Dylan Casey)
You can also join a future conversation or recommend a read, by visiting our forum in Not School- Philosophical Fiction. As always, happy reading!
Mark Linsenmayer and Seth Paskin read and interpret Martin Heidegger’s essay “On the Essence of Truth” (1943), first half.
This is a 17-minute preview of a two-hour, 38-minute bonus recording, which you can purchase at partiallyexaminedlife.com/store or get for free with PEL Citizenship (see partiallyexaminedlife.com/membership). You can also purchase it at iTunes Store: Search for “Partially Heidegger Truth.”
A Close Reading is us going line-by-line through a text trying to figure out what’s being said, which less much less agonizing than it sounds.
We’ve covered another later Heidegger essay, but had a hard time really making sense of his vocabulary, and so the Close Reading strategy is ideal for helping us (and you!) decode this difficult thinker.
Heidegger thinks that the traditional correspondence theory of truth somehow begs the question of what truth actually is. For Heidegger, the truth of sentences is derivative of the truth of beings, e.g. the difference between true gold and false gold is more fundamental than the sentence “this gold is true gold” being true or false. So what makes us call true gold true? Listen and see if you think Heidegger can give an alternative account that’s more informative than correspondence theory and which doesn’t itself somehow rely on the notion of truth. You may well want to throw up your hands and say that truth is simply fundamental and undefinable… but then I bet you’d say the same about being, wouldn’t you? Heidegger wouldn’t.
Stephen West of the Philosophize This! podcast returns to host the Aftershow for PEL episode #110 on Alfred North Whitehead. In this preview you’ll hear Stephen, Dylan Casey (who has a lot to say about process philosophy and science), and David Buchanan (guest from our Pirsig episode and PEL blogger). Later in the conversation they were also joined by Amough Sahu.
This is a 20-minute preview of a 80-minute discussion. Get the full audio by becoming a PEL Citizen and going to the Free Stuff for Citizens page. This will also enable you to take part in the next Aftershow (on Gadamer) on March 8 at 5pm Eastern time.
In 2011, Dan Conley started, and completed, My Montaigne Project: a series of 107 essays, one a day for 107 days, each inspired by one of Montaigne’s 107 Essais. The project almost, but not quite, landed him a book deal; this week he brought it back to the web with a newly designed website. He’s writing some new essays; intends to focus, among other things, on Montaigne’s alleged turn from stoicism to skepticism in the An Apology for Raymond Sebond (Penguin Classics) and plans to include links to all available public domain English translations of Montaigne’s works.
Mark Linsenmayer and Wes Alwan read and interpret Kant’s Critique of Judgment, sections 23-25.
This is a 13-minute preview of a 72-minute bonus recording, which you can purchase at partiallyexaminedlife.com/store or get for free with PEL Citizenship (see partiallyexaminedlife.com/membership). You can also purchase it at iTunes Store: Search for “Partially Examined Kant Sublime.”
A Close Reading is us going line-by-line through the text to help you ferret out what’s actually being said. The point is to not only get you to understand this text, but to learn how to decode Kant, and how in general to take on difficult texts if that’s maybe something you haven’t felt confident about before.
We’ve previously explained Kant’s account of how we recognize beauty and the view of one of Kant’s influences, Edmund Burke, on the difference between recognizing beauty and experiencing something as sublime. So what is Kant’s view on the sublime?
He thinks that, as with beauty, the apparatus by which we cognize anything comes into play here, but the process only goes half way, i.e. we don’t actually apply a concept to an object. Only with the sublime, Kant thinks that instead of the Concepts of the Understanding that get almost-applied, it’s the Ideas of Reason, which are more abstract. Whereas Burke saw the sublime both in overwhelming sensory experiences but also in scary connotations in stories, Kant thinks that strictly speaking, nothing we actually experience is sublime. Sublimity has to do with the infinite, the formless, so our sensory experiences can at best suggest these ideas to us; what we’re really reacting to is not the object, but to some ideas in ourselves.
We’re here reading the translation by Paul Guyer, which you can purchase here.
On Feb. 8, the regular four discussed a spate of works by Hans-Georg Gadamer about hermenutics.
Hermeneutics is all about how to properly interpret a text, and was initiated mainly to deal with the Bible, e.g. Augustine wanted to know how to reconcile the Old and New Testaments, and many more recent folks wanted to know how to interpret the Bible so that the horrible parts aren’t taken literally: How can the Book speak to us modern folks? It was given its modern form by Schleiermacher (the episode we did about him wasn’t on this topic, but our treatment will give you an idea of his approach), who urged us to learn about the historical distance between us and the text (not just the Bible) and systematically purge ourselves of our modern prejudices so that we can enter into the world of the text, to understand the author’s meaning as well as possible.
Gadamer’s response is that it’s not possible to purge ourselves of our prejudices, and while there are of course bad prejudices that make us willfully misunderstand a text and usually dismiss it, the word “prejudice” really just means hypothesis, and of course we need to constantly make hypotheses and hold forth expectations in order to understand a text at all. It’s like Plato’s puzzle in the Meno: how can look for knowledge unless you already know it well enough to look for it?
The “hermeneutic circle” traditionally meant going back and forth between the sentence you’re trying to interpret and the work as a whole. You need to use your expectations of what the work is in order to interpret any one sentence, but then as you interpret the individual parts, your conception of the whole evolves. Gadamer adds to this going back and forth between the text and your own prejudices, which (good or bad) should be as much as possible brought to light, so that engaging with a text means engaging with yourself too: it’s actually just a part of knowing thyself, i.e. a part of philosophy. And moreover, you don’t even need a text; this strategy applies whenever you’re trying to understand what someone is saying, whether through conversation or through a work of art.
We spent most of our time discussing chapter 4 of Gadamer’s most famous work, Truth and Method (1960), “Hermeneutic Circle and the Problem of Prejudices” (we read pages 268-273 and then 291-299). Gadamer was a student of Heidegger, and this is where he directly relates what he’s doing to Heidegger’s language and project: we are temporal beings, and the way we understand something has a “forestructure” (i.e. our expectations).
Gadamer thinks that Heidegger was onto something in describing all of this not as an interpreter consciously experiencing a text, explicitly handling hypotheses about it and using reason to come to the best conclusion. This doesn’t capture how unconscious this fore-understanding is, and how permanent our situation of being stuck in our own bed of prejudice is. Heidegger describes all of this as an ontological matter, i.e. as a matter of our modes of being, where we are not fundamentally separate from these things that we interrelate with, not Cartesian subjects looking at objects but fundamentally a unit. Gadamer describes interpretation with the image of a game, where we likewise don’t think of a game primarily as individuals sitting back and cogitating at each other, but as an interactive whole governed by its rules: we don’t play a game with others so much as the game plays both us and the others. Likewise, when you fully enter into hermeneutics, you’re putting yourself on the line, putting your preconceptions at risk, and you don’t come out the same person exactly as when you started. In a sense, it’s your prejudices, your traditions, that are acting and being subtly altered, through you. It’s not like you can choose your traditions, or take them off like clothes. You are just one element in this complex interaction, though a key element, as it’s your decision to throw yourself into this hermeneutic game, and your skill that determines how well you let the Other speak to you.
We also discussed the essay “Aesthetics and Hermeneutics” (1964), which criticized Kant‘s view of appreciation as too consciousness-oriented per the above. If art is just something to be enjoyed, and the only pure art is all about form, then art becomes purely a luxury, an idle passtime of the rich. Gadamer emphasizes that good art is always saying something, even when no words are involved. It is part of a culture, meant to be doing things in people’s lives. Moreover, a work’s meaning always exceeds what the author explicitly intended; to “mean” anything is to enter a fundamentally public world of expression where idioms are historically developed, so you’re really not delving into the mind of the artist in connecting with the work but learning more about the meaning expressed, including how it relates to you in your historical situation that may be different than the artist’s. A great work will always have more to say to future generations, so long as they enter into hermeneutics and are open to actually listening to it.
“The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem” (1966) described (among other things) how this hermeneutic approach relates to science: First, title of his book Truth and Method is misleading, in that the “method” part is all about how hermeneutics can’t actually be a method with strict rules laid out, whereas science much more resembles this kind of method. Hermeneutics (and the social sciences in general) shouldn’t try to ape the natural sciences, and it’s unfortunate that our whole society has become so dominated by the ethos of science that we think anything that doesn’t use the kind of reasoning employed by science must be simply bullshit. Gadamer points out that actually, underneath the scientific method, there still is (unscientific!) hermeneutics going on: you have to decide what experiments to perform next, what knowledge is worth seeking, etc. (All this was previously discussed in different terms on our Thomas Kuhn episode.) We need hermeneutics, for example, to tell us how to interpret statistics, and a really great scientist succeeds not just by following a method, but through imagination and consequent intuitive leaps (such as Newton being inspired by the falling apple).
Moreover (and this gets into the territory of Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology”), trying to apply the methods of science to everything leaves us blind to these value questions surrounding science, and too apt to look at everything in terms of efficiency, as resources to be used. Scientists ignore the practical uses to which their findings may be put, and we lose the ability to see what is fundamentally questionable in the way things are being done.
Finally, we spent a little time on “Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy” (1972), which clarified the “non-scientific” character of hermeneutics by bringing in Aristotle and how he contrasts techne (anything involving a method, which could be shoemaking but also technological science) from prohairesis, i.e. praxis that involves human preferences, which is the source of doing ethics and politics and really all philosophy that’s not purely a matter of trying to find out facts.
So the distinction is not the modern one between being practical (researching new medicines, building things, getting a job) and intellectual masturbation of one form of another. That picture involves the same sort of mistake as the alienated model of art described above. No, we need to understand that philosophy too (hermeneutics being a major part of this) involves praxis. It is oriented toward human good, and far from being “useless,” it provides necessary orientation without which our science and industry are blind machines, chugging away building the needs that nobody needs (to quote The Lorax, not Gadamer). And this “orientation” is not a one-time thing, but requires constant (or at least frequent) engagement, openness, and sympathetic communication, i.e. philosophical hermeneutics as a way of life.
(To clarify, Aristotle recognizes theoretical philosophy too, i.e. pure science and math — he puts theology in there too — which is of course not praxis. So the distinction between that kind of science and philosophy is not between knowledge and practice, but within the realm of knowledge. This doesn’t undermine his criticism about the way we dismiss philosophy as impractical in our culture today.)
Get the texts:
“The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem” and “Hermeneutics and Aeshetics” are both in the collection Philosophical Hermeneutics, which also has an excellent, lengthy introduction by David E. Linge. You can read them online; pages 3-17 and 95-104.
“Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy” is in The Gadamer Reader: A Bouquet of the Later Writings. Read it online (pages 227-245).
“Science is essentially an anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives.”
Paul Feyerabend (1924 – 1994) was an Austrian philosopher of science who advocated an anarchic and utilitarian approach to methodology. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht out of high school (1942), and spent most of the war as part of a (non-combat) pioneer battalion. However, as the fighting intensified toward the end he saw more combat, and was rapidly promoted through the ranks. He earned the Iron Cross for valor and finished the war a major, but he also took a bullet in the spine (1945) that left him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. After the war he entered university, studying theater, singing, astronomy, and philosophy (under Karl Popper.) This unusually eclectic background left him in a unique position to argue for the unique brand of cross-disciplinary anarchism that made his reputation. He accepted an appointment to UC-Berkeley in the late 50’s, where he spent the rest of his career.
In the early 70’s Feyerabend and his friend Imre Lakatos agreed to write two halves of a book, titled “For and Against Method.” Feyerabend wrote his half, Against Method (1975), but Lakatos died unexpectedly from a brain hemorrhage in 74, and the other half never appeared. Expanding on Kuhn, Feyerabend argued that the standard account of science – as an orderly, rational, methodical process – is a “fairy tale.” In practice, science is a messy business. Galileo, for instance, would be disqualified as a scientist on any rational model. He did not test hypotheses or perform experiments in order to decide between the geocentric and heliocentric theories – he looked at the data, decided which theory was right, and afterwards refrained from nothing in order to make his case. He ignored, misinterpreted, and mishandled the evidence when it suited him, and didn’t think a low ad hominem or two was beneath his dignity. Nonetheless, his achievement was undoubtedly real. Far from being an extrinsic element to an otherwise orderly process, Feyerabend argued that this messiness is essential to creativity. The appearance of orderliness is imposed after the fact, by a selective interpretation of history, for essentially ideological reasons.
According to Feyerabend, the lesson we should draw from this is that messiness is good, because it is conducive to creativity. Instead of trying to impose a method from the top down, or dividing up the academy into artificially separated disciplines – scientists, scholars, musicians, artists, poets, priests, witch doctors – everyone should be encouraged to select the method that seems best to them. There are no correct methods – only useful insights. Similarly, there is no answer to the demarcation problem in the philosophy of science, for it is no problem at all, and there is nothing unique to demarcate from anything else. “The events, procedures, and results that constitute the sciences,” he said, “have no common structure.” The myth of science as an epistemically privileged activity is just that – a myth. The technological marvels and universe-spanning theories that surround us are not the products of a uniquely privileged mode of inquiry, but of a joint creative effort in which all creative people can and have participated in.
<em>This post previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life Facebook page.</em>
Two years after a group of mostly Saudi men flew commercial planes into One and Two World Trade Center, resulting in both buildings’ collapsing, several New Yorkers packed into a courtroom, a mile from where the buildings once stood, in order to hear a court case on the semantics of the word occurrence. In July of 2003, Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the World Trade Center site, sued the insurers of the WTC site, claiming he was entitled to 7.1 billion dollars, twice the amount the insurers believed he was entitled to. According to policy, Silverstein was guaranteed maximum compensation for any occurrence that led to the devastation or destruction of the buildings, but the language of the contract was shaky about what constituted an occurrence. An occurrence was defined as “losses or damages that are attributable directly or indirectly to one cause or to one series of similar causes.” In this somewhat idiosyncratic rendering, an occurrence is basically a bad event caused by a person or persons, or some other event, say a natural disaster like an earthquake. The question in the courtroom that July, for the three Second Circuit Court judges, was this: Was the attack on One and Two World Trade Center one event or two?
Silverstein and his lawyers argued that the attack constituted two events. At 8:46 AM, the five terrorists in the cockpit of American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north face of One World Trade Center, and about 15 minutes later, five different terrorists crashed into the south face of Two World Trade Center. It’s possible that either never happened, that no terrorist attack was ever planned and carried out, that One and Two World Trade Center are still standing and that the people inside are at work as usual. It’s also conceivable that after the first building was hit that an air marshall aboard United Airlines Flight 175 recruited passengers to help take out the terrorists aboard and diverted the flight path away from Two World Trade Center. Silverstein and council believed that if it’s possible that no attack was carried out, or that only one attack was carried out, then the destruction of both towers must be two events.
The World Trade Center insurers claimed otherwise. They argued that the terrorists aboard those commercial planes intended to destroy both buildings and as such was part of one large plan. Therefore, the attacks constituted one event, they said.
To the three Circuit Court judges, none of this was clear. Everyone agreed about the facts but here they were listening to lawyers have a conceptual debate. And it was up to the judges to make a ruling based on the argumentation about what an event really is. Even though it might not have been clear to the judges, it’s not too hard to understand the conceptual distinction being made here. When we’re talking about people, should we think about the events they bring about as what springs from their larger plan? Or we should we think in terms of the result of their actions and number what they wrecked? The judges eventually sided with the insurers, by fiat determining in a court of law that an event is really a matter of the successful execution of plans, at least when we’re talking about persons.
But there really is no answer to the question of what events are, outside of some framework or other, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that when talking about what people do and why they do what they do, we appeal to the reasons why they act as they do, and in the absence of knowing what the reasons are, we reconstruct them. Conceivably, two otherwise incommensurate constructions of reasons for actions can account for the events that follow. It’s possible, for example, to construe the attacks on 1WTC and 2WTC as the conjunction of two events, with the intention to carry them both out, and it is just as valid a construal to conceive of the attacks as part of one orchestrated plan, and so as one event. This is what the lawyers were doing regarding the insurance claim.
There’s another reason there’s no telling what events are, though, a deeper reason, and that is because there are no word-world relations that we know of. Another way to say this is there’s no semantics in the formal sense, let alone a real meaning to what events are. On that July day, when the lawyers for both Silverstein and the insurers used the word occurrence, they used it in reference to the attacks, roughly in the same context but with vastly different intentions. But the different intentions are not internal to the word; they’re internal to the people using them. Questions about meanings of a word are really questions of normativity, namely how we ought to use the word. Even if we were to grant that certain words have a definite range of meanings—say we assume that events are limited in scope to either successful execution of a plan or conformability to acts we can individuate—this range would still be limited to the internal structure of a word or the word’s concept and tell us nothing about the word’s deeper relationship to the world.
The only way to say whether an event ought to be one thing or another is just to define it a certain way so that it fits the framework you want to use it in. If you want to make use of the word to understand how something works, you can’t be agnostic about what it is. This defining of words ahead of time to fit some explanatory framework is not as strange as it might sound. For example, we talk about the gravity of a situation, or, a person’s gravitas. This usage predates Isaac Newton’s use of the word gravity, but it made sense to use it in the way that he did. He needed some name for what he was looking for, namely some name for force that attracts bodies. But regarding uses of the word event, we won’t know how to make use of it unless we know what we’re looking for. So we can’t know what it is until then.
This has larger implications for rational inquiry in general. Think of Alfred North Whitehead’s attempt to construct an event ontology as opposed to an object ontology, or Donald Davidson’s event semantics. Or the lawyers’ squabble over whether the WTC attacks were one event or two. We need to know what we’re investigating here. What is an event? The question should be posed to those people seeking to understanding something. The appropriate response to anyone seeking to make use of the term when they want to know how the world works is: You tell us.
An article on Larry Silverstein’s claim against the WTC insurers can be found in Dan Ackman’s article in Forbes titled “Larry Silverstein’s $3.5 B Definition” (23 July 2003).
Discussion of the semantics of the word event is in Steven Pinker (2007), The Stuff of Thought, New York: Viking, pp. 1-24, and also in the context of the September 11 attacks.
Donald Davidson’s “Actions, Reasons, and Causes (1963)” in Essays on Actions and Events (2001), Oxford: Oxford UP, pp. 3-20, was helpful to me in formulating how we explain human behavior in terms of reasons for action.
For more discussion of the possibility of semantics in the formal sense (in terms of word-world relations), see Noam Chomsky, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (2002), New York: Cambridge UP.
I learned of Isaac Newton’s use of gravity as metaphor from James Gleick, Isaac Newton (2004), New York: Vintage.
For more information on Donald Davidson’s event semantics, I highly recommend Terence Parsons, Events in the Semantics of English (1990), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (NB. Amazon list price is $500. Best to check it out from your local library.)
Billie Pritchett is a writer and English professor with interests in moral and political philosophy, philosophy of social science, and phenomenology. He maintains his own blog called si hoc legere scis… and is on Twitter via @b_pritchett.
In this review of Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing, Francis Fukuyama claims that “It should be clear that the Straussian project has no particular implications for contemporary American foreign policy, other than to underline its present moral dilemma.”
Bring out the marching band, episode one of the brand new British philosophy podcast, The Philosofa, is now available online at www.philosofa.org.
If you like the Partially Examined Life then you will love this podcast.
The Philosofa discusses the practical, real-world significance of abstract philosophical problems, balancing a fine-line between wit and wisdom along the way. Its purpose – to let the grizzly philosophy bear out of its cage and unleash it on a frightened public.
The format is a playful yet penetrating parley between panellists. Each episode the hosts, comedians Omar Hamdi and Helen Arney, introduce the philosophical quandary of the day. They are joined in the studio by an academic philosopher, who offers his or her expertise, and at least two other guests from beyond the academy, who give their own perspectives and discuss the ways in which the topic is important and applies within their own fields.
Discussions are witty and off-the-cuff, whilst still being edifying and insightful. No prior knowledge needed. The podcast is aimed as much at the philosophical fledgling as at the most wise and wizened of initiates.
In the first and latest episode, the glorious Omar and Helen are joined by philosopher and Nietzsche scholar, Professor Ken Gemes of Birkbeck University; and veteran TV producer and author of, Into the Woods, a bestselling book about how narratives work, John Yorke.
Go to www.philosofa.org/episodes to download, tune-in and enjoy!
Hello everyone! I’m Stephen West.
I host the Philosophize This! podcast: a show where I try to get people thinking. I do my best to talk about important ideas from philosophy in a way that doesn’t make people feel like they’re being lectured by a second-rate elitist university professor with tenure. (We all know how that is.)
But before I ever did this for a living I was a huge fan of The Partially Examined Life. The joy and insight that these long conversations have given me is something that I truly cherish; I loved them so much that I wanted to be part of the conversation. Sure, my brain would be dwarfed by Wes and his renegade genius. And yes, I might have to sit down when I pee for the rest of the day after Mark proves who the true intellectual alpha-male of the coversation was, but I at least wanted to raise my hand and ask a question. I wanted to clarify some things. Whether it was something I didn’t quite understand or a comparison I didn’t quite agree with, I wanted just a few seconds to kiss their rings and glean the wisdom of my headmasters.
Turns out they can’t hear me when I’m on the treadmill and ask them a question through my headphones. That’s the thing about podcasts: they’re a little one-sided. So when the guys reached out to me and asked me to be a regular presence in their after-show where they would continue the conversation with listeners, I said “YES!” before Mark even finished the sentence and it was a little awkward.
Thinking philosophically doesn’t need to be an individual pursuit. In fact, I would argue that it’s best when it isn’t. It would be an honor for me to talk with my fellow PEL citizens about your take on the most recent episode of the show. We’ve already done one of these, it was incredibly fun, and it only stands to get better as we get better at producing these things.
Please, if you are free on Sunday the 15th of February (1pm Eastern/10am Pacific), consider signing up to join our discussion on Alfred North Whitehead. The only prerequisite is that you’ve listened to the PEL episode; we don’t expect you to have read any of the book. There is absolutely no pressure for you to say something smart; just come hang out with me and Dylan.
And here is a link where you can sign up to be a part of the next discussion if that is something you are interested in: Alfred North Whitehead Aftershow. You’ll need to be a PEL Citizen to access that page and actually participate in the discussion, but we’ll try to remember to post the Google On Air link to the Facebook group at the time of the discussion so that anyone can watch it in real time.
One of the consistently best sites on the Internet for thoughtful reviews of worthwhile books is Metapsychology Online Reviews, edited by Christian Perring. A standout in the current issue is George Tudorie’s review of Michael Tomasello’s A Natural History of Human Thinking.
Tomasello is co-director of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the author of several influential books on the evolutionary origins of human cognition, language use, and cooperation. Tudorie explains the problem being addressed in A Natural History like this:
From early on, human children are quite different from the progeny of even closely related animals, like chimps. They are, for example, much more inclined to cooperate (manifesting the rudiments of ‘prosocial’ behavior), and seem driven to understand what goes on in others’ minds way before they could master anything like the mature repertoire of concepts applicable to a thinking being. What makes human babies and infants unique in this way?
And the solution Tomasello proposes is to borrow an idea from philosophy: specifically, the notion of collective intentionality. The issue at stake,as Tudorie explains it:
Philosophers were interested in demystifying the apparent ‘merging’ of minds involved in such impressive coordination as that exhibited by a symphonic orchestra, but also in more prosaic events such as jump starting a car by dividing labor between pushing the vehicle and working its clutch. In philosophy, this was perceived as a problem only in the context of a more general challenge, that of linking intention, supposedly an instance of the ‘inner’, and action, which is overt. The problem of collective action seemed harder, since it involved a certain ‘meshing’ . . . of intentions in separate individuals. If I act alone, my intentions control, or are reflected by, my actions; but when we act together there seems to be a need for my intentions to inform your actions and vice versa. How could that be, since presumably I can only intend what I myself could attempt?
Versions of solutions to this problem have been proposed by Michael Bratman and John Searle, among others. (Bratman explains his solution in this lecture.) Tomasello’s adaptation of the “shared intentionality hypothesis” into evolutionary psychology includes elements of both.
Tudorie refers to above-described problem as a “somewhat marginal philosophical conundrum,” and suggests that it may be “a badly formulated problem to begin with.” His more important critique of Tomasello, though, is that this borrowing represents a misuse of a philosophical analysis:
These changes are described, as in previous works by the Max Planck group, on the lines of the criteria suggested by Michael Bratman for ‘joint cooperative action’ — this is the basis for what Tomasello calls ‘joint intentionality’. However, while Bratman was asking what defines genuine cooperation, Tomasello reifies the defining criteria and reads them as specific adaptations.
. . .
The heavily psychologized theory of early cooperation [Tomasello’s account] is based on — effectively forcing Bratman’s functional description of familiar interactions of competent contemporary adults into the role of evolutionary psychological speculation about (at best) protolinguistic hominids — remains a weakness. One can hardly begin to ask questions of plausibility regarding the emergence of ‘joint intentionality’ if this very concept is ill-suited for describing adaptive transformations driven by natural selection. As things stand, this seems to be the case. Any intelligible notion of sharing thoughts already requires such a sophisticated understanding of mental life that to posit it as the root of human thinking — and not as its culmination — begs the question.
Other works under review in the current issue of Metapsychology include
Philosophy of Biology (Princeton Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy)(Peter Godfrey-Smith)
Foucault Now (Current Perspectives in Foucault Studies) (James Faubion, ed.)
Evolved Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience
(Frans B.M. de Waal, Patricia Smith Churchland, et al., eds.)
The Aesthetic Mind: Philosophy and Psychology (Elisabeth Schellekens and Peter Goldie, eds.)
Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
(Daniel K. Gardner)
And finally, one of the books that Tudorie cites in his review of Tomasello gets the prize for Book Title of the Week:
Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition