1. 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.

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  2. 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

  3. 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.

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

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  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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

  7. 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.


  8. 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

  9. 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

  10. 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

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. Not School’s Phil-Fiction on the Novel “Age of Iron”


    The Not School Philosophical Fiction group in June took Daniel Cole, Philip Cherny, and myself into a conversation on J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Age of Iron.  The story is about Mrs. Curren, who writes letters to her emigrated daughter about her own final years and the lives of friends caught in apartheid violence in South Africa. PEL Citizens can download the discussion from the Free Stuff page (under Not School Discussion Group Audio; scroll down to find all the discussions from the Fiction group together).

    As always these conversations sprawl across the major story-lines and ideas within the book and that means SPOILERS. That also means if you haven’t finished, started, or even thought about reading… then great; we try to talk about it all.

    We are currently reading The Trial by Franz Kafka, and July is still open to new readers and recommendations, so go become a PEL Citizen, visit PEL’s Not School (learn about it here) and look for Philosophical Fiction to get in on the conversation.

    Listen to more of our conversations:

    Ulysses by James Joyce

    Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

    The Body Artist by Don Delillo

    -Nathan Shaine

  14. Topic for #96: Oppenheimer and the Rhetoric of Science Advisers


    Listen to Lynda Walsh’s introduction to her book.

    Much like our fan-favorite episode from last year on Heraclitus with Eva Brann, on this episode recorded on 6/6/14, we talked to an author, Lynda Walsh (an old friend of Seth’s) about her book, and just as a good chunk of what was interesting about talking with Eva and reading her book was getting a flavor for the methodological practices by which she approaches philosophy–which in Eva’s case involved the St. John’s/Heideggerian use of etymology–Lynda is likewise coming from a tradition strange to most of us philosophy fans: She’s a professor of rhetoric.

    Continue reading

  15. Traumatic Roots of Heidegger’s Fall into Nazism


    toporBrain“We are all exceptional cases. We all want to appeal against something! Each of us insists on being innocent at all cost, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself.”― Albert Camus, The Fall 

    What accounts for Heidegger’s fall from grace into Nazism? This topic is touched on in the episode on Being and Time. Are we all vulnerable to the same or some similar fate, if only the circumstances were right? Of course not, we say–we are exceptional cases.

    Two questions are at issue here: 1) What motivated Heidegger?; 2) Is seeking to answer this question valid?

    Continue reading

  16. Episode 95: Gödel on Math


    On Kurt Gödel’s essays, “Some Basic Theorems on the Foundations of Mathematics and their Implications” (1951) and “The Modern Development of the Foundations of Mathematics in Light of Philosophy” (1961).

    Gödel is famous for some “incompleteness theorems” of direct interest only to those trying to axiomatize mathematics. What are the implications for the rest of philosophy? Gödel thought that, contra people’s claims that incompleteness demonstrates some kind of relativism, he had showed that the world of mathematics even in its most abstract reaches is part of the real (though non-physical) world. Mark, Wes, Dylan, and guest Adi Habbu try to figure out these unpublished and dare I say incomplete essays.

    Listen to Adi’s introduction, read more about the topic, and get the essays.

    End song: “Axiomatic” from Mark Lint & the Simulacra. Read about it.

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

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  17. Partially Naked Self-Examination Music Blog: “Axiomatic”


    Listen to “Axiomatic” by Mark Lint & the Simulacra (as well as the version by New People).

    For our Gödel episode, I thought it fitting to remix one of the last-to-be-completed tracks for the Mark Lint & the Simulacra album (mostly recorded in 2000 with folks in Austin, but still not done now due to my having moved on to other projects): “Axiomatic,” even though this breaks a principle I’ve stuck to up to now that I shouldn’t post the same song on two different episodes.

    It’s kind of an existential motivational song, like “Eye of the Tiger” as written by Schopenhauer: “If misery is axiomatic for the likes of you and me, decide it’s cool, and call it fuel, and employ it sparingly [use it fruitfully, etc.].” I’m not using the term “axiomatic” to mean “obvious” per the graphic here, but as inspired by the way it’s used in philosophy (especially Buddhism): suffering may be more or less logically entailed by human nature. Continue reading

  18. Education and Schopenhauer’s “Thinking for Oneself”


    Arthur Schopenhauer as a Young Man

    In Arthur Schopenhauer’s essay “On Thinking for Oneself” (1851), he writes that there are few people who possess a natural love of learning and that they will only learn from others if they find something that triggers an innate interest inside themselves.

    Thinking must be kindled, like a fire by a draught; it must be sustained by some interest in the matter in hand. This interest may be of a purely objective kind, or merely subjective. The latter comes into play only in things that concern us personally. Objective interest is confined to heads that think by nature; to whom thinking is as natural as breathing; and they are very rare. This is why most men of learning show so little of it.

    Continue reading

  19. June’s Intro to Philosophy Not School Group: Metaphilosophy


    [Though June has already begun, and we thought that the fabulous Introductory Philosophy Readings Not School group might be on hiatus, we're happy to announce a new group leader for June, the every-popular Michael Burgess. If you're not a member of Not School, join up. Don't know what it is? Read here.]

    So far in the Intro group we have considered works which through their outlook, methodology or content have exemplified styles or approaches to philosophy. In June we will consider the subject of philosophy itself, i.e. we’ll read about metaphilosophy. The text is available via the Documents tab on the group page, though you can also buy the book, of course: An Introduction to Metaphilosophy, by Søren Overgaard, et al.

    Continue reading