1. Some Questions on Aesthetics and Art


    I recently finished reading Noel Carroll’s remarkable book Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction, and the result was a newfound appreciation for aesthetics and art, and it even caused me to change my mind regarding some of the untested assumptions I had regarding art. For example, I regularly meet with a writing group and we workshop short stories. The other guys in the writing group have published their short fiction; I haven’t. One of the members’ way of writing irked me for a long time because I couldn’t see enough of the author in the work. I secretly resented some of his stories because he didn’t explore a topic that would present him as an author as vulnerable or embarrassed: no admissions of loneliness or depression, nothing of making a fool of himself in public. It wasn’t until I read Carroll’s book that I realized I was operating under a tacit assumption: Art ought to express something of the author’s emotions. But of course this is a Romantic view, and surely not found in all works of art. In fact, if I really thought this were true, it would exclude whole swaths of art I very much love, art that seems to say very little about the author’s own vulnerabilities or emotions. What in The Odyssey, for instance, lets the reader know what gave Homer the blues?

    Carroll’s book is very good at setting up various theories of art and examining their strengths and weaknesses before moving on to the next. When I began reading the book, I thought this was a futile enterprise. It seemed an odd exercise of typical analytic philosophy, to set up a book that tries to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes a work of art what it is, just to knock it down and maybe ultimately reveal in the end that nobody can give any necessary and sufficient conditions. That is not what this book did. Carroll takes seriously the theories he explores, and one of his values seems to be that there is something that can be learned from these theories of art.

    Take the theory that is as old as Plato and Aristotle that says that art is just an imitation of reality. Even if we ultimately dismiss this theory as insufficient (e.g., how to account for non-representational art), we can discover from those philosophers who proposed art as representation some important facts about the nature of representational art. For instance, we might gain a newfound appreciation for the design of a representational work of art, how difficult it is to make the formal properties and their relations cohere to actually make, say, a painting of a woman in a kimono resemble a real life woman in a kimono. (Of course in the picture below, the photograph came later.)

    Photo Credit: Lyuba-Chan

    Carroll’s book can be awfully opinionated as well, as with the concept of disinterestedness and aesthetic experience. He never mentions Immanuel Kant by name but his presence looms large over the chapter on aesthetics. As you may remember from the Kant episode, disinterestedness toward art would involve approaching a work of art without ulterior purposes—impartially, in other words. According to Kant, we ought to attend only to the formal organization of the work.

    Objections immediately arise to this view of disinterestedness. Perhaps the most important objection is what to do about artwork produced with religious, political or ulterior purposes in mind. How else to appreciate, for instance, what the image of Rosie the Riveter is doing unless we consider it in context, that is, as an attempt to encourage people, especially women, to contribute to the war effort in WWII? The art theorist or philosopher who would still encourage us to only attend to the work of art in terms of beauty by looking at its formal organization would seem to be asking us to miss the point of the work, Carroll wants to say. And this is not the only example of artwork created with personal or larger social interests at the core of its creation. The history of the art world has been replete with examples of art that contain representational and expressive properties, in addition to formal properties, that we’re supposed to pay attention to.

    In Carroll’s view, that’s what is really at the heart of Kant’s concerns and the other people who espouse disinterest toward art and other manifestations of beauty: attention and concentration. According to Carroll, the problem is that our attention and concentration in view of beauty can come in degrees–we can be more or less attentive or concentrated. But we can never have disinterested attention in view of what is beautiful. By paying attention or failing to, we necessarily are not impartial to what we’re taking to be beautiful.

    Kant held in The Critique of Judgment that “taste is still barbaric which needs a mixture of charms and emotions in order that there may be satisfaction, and still more so if it makes these the measures of its assent.” As much as some of us may have misgivings about consumer society, it would be difficult to find someone whose taste does not include a love for charms or at least some art that doesn’t possess emotional properties. Call this objection of Carroll’s “the way aesthetic experience actually works.” This, coupled with the claim that at least some art is made to provoke partiality, should make us doubt Kant’s view, Carroll thinks.

    The central topics of Noel Carroll’s book are indicated by its chapters: the book deals with representation, expression, form, aesthetics, and defining and identifying art. Instead of moving through each chapter, however, I would like to propose some questions that might provoke some of your intuitions regarding aesthetics and art. I’d be curious to see what your opinions would be regarding these questions before and after reading the book.

    To play fair, I’ll give you my answers, without any presumption on my part that the answers I have provided are adequate, let alone definitive.

    1. What is your favorite work of art? How would you describe your relationship with it?

    My favorite work of pictorial art these days is Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893), and I am especially partial to the 1895 lithograph because I had the privilege of seeing it in person recently, on display in Seoul’s Museum of Modern Art in Korea. I have a copy of it hanging on my wall in my apartment. Munch described his inspiration for the work in an 1892 diary entry:

    One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.

    The expression on the screaming man’s face in the work looks almost comical to millennials like me who first saw this grab-your-face-and-yell gesture on the VHS box cover of the 1990 film Home Alone. Even though my love for the piece sits uncomfortably alongside my love for other art (I prefer Renaissance and Baroque pictography), it is not an ironic appreciation; it is just that I and my millennial friends come to it with more cultural baggage than its early 20th century audience would have carried to it—with baggage heavy enough to make us appreciate the work more if we’re careful about it. The absurd associations we could make with the work highlight the absurdity of the action and in turn the absurdity of the sentiment that the work is trying to express. Imagine yourself walking along the bridge, a well-dressed couple, cheerily predisposed, passing you by, the sun setting to your left, when all of a sudden you are hit with the thought you and all the people you love are going to die. You know it would be strange to grab your face and scream out in horror, yet somehow you think it would be appropriate in a moment when you realize your own mortality, and you wonder why everybody isn’t showing their horror of death more often. This thought hits me like a punch to the gut. And that’s why I love it.

    2. Does the appreciation of beauty make us better (perhaps more moral?) human beings?

    I think an aesthetic approach to art or to people and objects in the world is essential to being a human being but it’s fundamentally different from approaching the world ethically—or logically, scientifically, spiritually, or mythically for that matter. Experiencing the world aesthetically is a matter of paying attention to the form and particular qualities of something. It’s possible to do this with a work of art but it can just as easily be done when viewing an oak, a person’s face, or a dog’s paw. The kinds of qualities that are particularly aesthetic qualities are qualities of expression, as when something appears somber or serious; qualities of taste, as when something looks kitschy or cheap; or qualities of unity, diversity, motion, and so on, which are often called Gestalt qualities, and are a matter of playing on the ways in which we’re psychologically constituted and things appear to us.

    Consider George Cooke’s “Tallulah Falls,” and the way its rows of trees really do appear like a mountain side, and the way the river really looks like it’s flowing and how the man who is reaching out toward the tree looks precariously close to the edge. Nothing about the appreciation of this beautiful work entails a moral-ethical approach. A moral-ethical approach means looking at the world as being consistent with a good life, or promoting or preserving positive relations with others, including those regarding care, fairness, freedom, group loyalty, legitimate authority, and purity. There is overlap between viewing the world aesthetically and ethically, to be sure, but one approach does not entail the other.

    3. In what sense is art an imitation of reality?

    Art is clearly not always an imitation of reality, and so art imitates reality only if an artist designs an artwork such that its form, relation, and properties create the illusion that what appears in the artwork approximates people, objects, and events in the world. If you consider non-representational art, however, like Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Space,” it doesn’t look as though the artist is trying to represent something. A clever viewer might say that Brancusi captured the swoop of a bird in flight but even if that’s so it’s stretching it to regard Brancusi, therefore, as creating a work of art that is imitative or representational art. In fact, U.S. Customs officials set off a legal battle regarding this piece in 1926 about whether the piece should even be regarded as a work of art.

    4. Is a copy of a great work of art itself a work of art?

    I think so, although I have no idea how I’d go about checking whether or not this is the kind of proposition that can be true or false. Any reader feedback regarding this would be helpful.

    5. What is it that makes some things art while others are not art?

    A work of art has some special formal relations and properties but outside of that I don’t know of a surefire way to determine what art is. The subject is a matter of great debate and is often determined by an ongoing dialogue, not only within the art-world but also among groups of ordinary people, and sometimes the issue even makes it to the courts, where for legal expediency a decision has to be made. Just to delight your fancy, think of the work of art below by Michael Craig-Martin titled “An Oak Tree.” Just in case you can’t see, it’s a glass of water sitting in the near-middle of a transparent shelf attached to the art wall. Your grandmother might not have thought it art, but the art-world does today.

    Okay, I fibbed. One more question:

    6. Do you think Carroll characterized Kant’s position on disinterest fairly?

    What do you think?


  2. Episode 105: Kant: What Is Beauty?


    KantOn Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790), Pt. 1, Book 1.

    Kant thinks that finding something beautiful is different than merely liking it. It’s a certain kind of liking, not dependent on your idiosyncratic tastes (like your preference for one color or flavor or tone over another) or on your moral opinions. He wants these judgments to be subjective in the sense that they’re not about the object, but about the fact that people receive pleasure from it, yet he also wants them to be universal, so that if I (correctly) find something beautiful, then I expect others to feel the same way, and moreover, if they have taste, they should.

    Of course this is all put into very difficult Kantian language with virtually no actual examples, so the regular foursome had a good time attempting to translate it to something you can get your head around. Read more about the topic and get the book.

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  3. Can anarchism be defended?


    Robert Nozick tries to knock out anarchism as a possible political theory in his argument for the Minimal State. But does he really knock it out? Or can anarchism as a political theory be defended? And what is at stake?

    In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick imagines a world in which, as if by an invisible hand, society moves away from Anarchy toward the Minimal State—an organization with a monopoly on violence and protection, including protection of private property and the enforcement of contracts. Nozick believes the Minimal State is the only political organization that is morally justifiable. The movement away from Anarchy, however, is not to be confused with anarchism. Anarchy is the imagined condition when human beings lived without anyone claiming a monopoly on violence and coercion. Anarchism is the commitment to the principle of autonomy. Nozick conflates the two concepts, and so with a little parsing I think his claims can be rebutted and anarchism can be defended as a principled position, even if ultimately it’s best considered one valuable position among others.

    Nozick lays out five possible scenarios in which someone could try to defend political organization and still maintain a commitment to the individual’s natural rights.

    Scenario 1: Anarchy. Human beings are self-governing to the extent that they do not harm others. The old saying runs, “Your freedom ends where my nose begins”—have all the freedom you want but just don’t go around using that freedom to hurt me or anybody else. Of course, the outbreak of violence or coercion is always possible under this scenario even if it’s never morally justified.

    Scenario 2: Competing Protective Agencies. Human beings are not entirely self-governing because in this scenario there are little protective agencies that people pay cash or kind to in order to keep from being harmed by others—but with no pay comes no protection, in which case the people who are entirely self-governing are open to harm.

    Scenario 3: Dominant Protective Agency. Human beings are not self-governing if they pay tribute to this big protective agency but they can rest assured that if someone tries to harm or defraud them, they are going to be covered. Anybody not paying tribute to the big agency gets no protection but are self-governing.

    Scenario 4: Ultraminimal State. A big protective agency controls an area and nobody within that territory is allowed to exercise force or coercion—but it only protects those who pay. Anybody who harms a non-paying member may suffer but the non-paying member is not entitled to compensation for violence, fraud, or other harm.

    Scenario 5: Minimal State. A big protective agency controls an area and nobody within that territory is allowed to exercise force or coercion—to people who pay the agency and people who don’t pay the agency. Nobody is allowed to harm anybody and therefore anyone who is harmed or defrauded is entitled to compensation.

    Nozick reasons that Anarchy is insufficient because I am always at risk of being harmed, and I have only me and my friends and family’s recourse for retaliation to help solve problems. Nozick thinks, too, we can quickly dismiss Competing Protective Agencies, the Dominant Protective Agency, and the Ultraminimal State because these scenarios do not respect the natural rights of people who are outside the coverage of these protective agencies. The only legitimate political organization, therefore, is the Minimal State, which will protect people in a territory, no matter what, from violence, coercion, and fraud, and will enforce the rights, especially the property rights, of everyone. Criticizing the Ultraminimal State, Nozick writes:

    A proponent of the ultraminimal state may seem to occupy an inconsistent position… Greatly concerned to protect rights against violation, he makes this the sole legitimate function of the state; and he protests that all other functions are illegitimate because they themselves involve the violation of rights. Since he accords paramount place to the protection and nonviolation of rights, how can he support the ultraminimal state, which would seem to leave some persons’ rights unprotected or illprotected? How can he support this in the name of the nonviolation of rights? [Nozick's emphasis]

    What is deeply troubling to Nozick is that the Ultraminimal State (and its intermediaries, the Competing Protective Agencies and the Dominant Protective Agency) violates natural rights because it excludes non-paying members to the protective agency from being properly compensated for wrongdoing. His argument is an argument from unfairness: it would be unfair to make those who can’t pay for protection suffer life’s vicissitudes. But the argument is also an argument from rights: above all, we ought to preserve the natural rights of human beings to the extent that they’re not harmed or defrauded—to the extent that they can maintain their freedom.

    Yet what Nozick gives with one hand he takes with the other.

    Nozick acknowledges that there might be some really existing material conditions where the lack of money limits the possibility of people being free from harm or coercion because they cannot pay for the services that will allow them to be free from such harm. But what if there were a world in which some of these scenarios were mixed? What of the following?

    Scenario 6: Minimal State with Competing Protective Agencies. A big protective agency controls an area and nobody within that territory is allowed to exercise force or coercion—to people who pay the agency and people who don’t pay the agency. Nobody is allowed to harm anybody and therefore anyone who is harmed or defrauded is entitled to compensation. But there exist some smaller protective agencies to whom people pay cash or kind in order to suffer fewer opportunities of harm from others—but with no pay comes no protection, in which case the people who are outside the smaller agencies are more open to harm.

    Nozick seems to think that among really existing states of affairs, Competing Protective Agencies naturally turn into a Dominant Protective Agency and later into the Ultraminimal State. But it seems to me that mixed forms could exist, as with Scenario 6, where the State provides blanket protection but where smaller organizations exist alongside the State that could increase the probability that one is not exposed to bodily or mental harm and that sometimes do a better job, all told, at protecting people’s claims.

    In fact, I think that to a less idealized degree, certain conditions within the United States approximate to Scenario 6. To the extent that some people can afford higher priced attorneys with regard to their legal claims, better health care, better universities, better neighborhoods, more comfortable exercise facilities, and healthier food, they enjoy more freedom from harm. This is because their quality of life is better and they have greater capacities to exercise their rights. The freedom to exercise your rights is no use to you if you never have the chance to use it, or if you’re dead, and real freedom is always more important than nominal freedom. Even constitutional guarantees to freedom and the pursuit of happiness are meaningless words on parchment without the opportunity for use, rendering a constitution little more than a paper tiger.

    In Scenario 6, everyone is free from harm but some people are freer from harm than others. Such a world seems morally unjustifiable. In which case, I’d propose the following scenario for rectification:

    Scenario 7: Welfare State. A big protective agency controls an area and nobody within that territory is allowed to exercise force or coercion—to people who pay the agency and to people who don’t pay the agency. Nobody is allowed to harm anybody and therefore anyone who is harmed or defrauded is entitled to compensation. To the extent that there exist any Competing Agencies, the lesser off are compensated for the disproportionate amount of harm they incur when some people have greater access to the protections of private agencies.

    Scenario 7 would rectify occasions when Scenario 6 more closely approximates the world we live in, and it uses much the same justification for its moral legitimacy as Nozick uses for his argument for the Minimal State as opposed to its less fair alternatives. Yet the whole reason that Nozick got off on this track in the first place is because he thought that Anarchy, where everyone had maximal exercise of his natural rights, would naturally devolve toward a state of war where everyone would be competing every man for himself, and so he needed to find some legitimate institution that could bring order out of all this chaos. But does Nozick’s argument against Anarchy constitute an argument against anarchism? Nozick seems to have thought so but I believe otherwise.

    Nozick writes as though his arguments for the Minimal State constitute an argument against anarchism. In the beginning of the work, he writes:

    I treat seriously the anarchist claim that in the course of maintaing its monopoly on the use of force and protecting everyone within a territory, the state must violate individuals’ rights and hence is intrinsically immoral. Against this claim, I argue that a state would arise from anarchy (as represented by Locke’s state of nature) even though no one intended this or tried to bring it about, by a process which need not violate anyone’s rights.

    Nozick’s claim “that a state would arise from anarchy…even though no one intended this or tried to bring it about” is a non sequitir in view of the anarchist’s objection because the anarchist views the State as morally illegitimate, even if not factually indispensable, by virtue of analyticity. The State violates a person’s autonomy: it seeks to govern people instead of let people govern themselves.

    The anarchist, committed to the principle of autonomy, believes people ought to govern themselves. One of Nozick’s contemporaries and a vocal philosophical expositor of the anarchist position Robert Paul Wolff argues that anarchism is a commitment to the principle of autonomy, and that “[t]he autonomous man, insofar as he is autonomous, is not subject to the will of another. He may do what another tells him, but not because he has been told to do it. He is therefore, in the political sense of the word, free.” “The defining mark of the state is authority, the right to rule. The primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled” (In Defense of Anarchism). The stage is already set for conflict:

    The anarchist may grant that if we reached a world where we had only the Minimal State to contend with, where private tyrannies were excluded, it would be better than the alternatives, better than a subscriber State or rule by competing agencies. The anarchist could even say it would be better than Anarchy if Anarchy naturally entails that people do harm to one another and others go out on vengeance killings, for example, to rectify wrongs. But this is all beside the point. The anarchist has no truck in these affairs because these are imagined scenarios whereas anarchism is a principled position in view of real scenarios. The anarchist considers what the really existing states of affairs are and tries her best to maximize her autonomy within those states of affairs. Wolff writes:

    Now, of course, an anarchist may grant the necessity of complying with the law under certain circumstances or for the time being. He may even doubt that there is any real prospect of eliminating the state as a human institution. But he will never view the commands of the state as legitimate, as having a binding moral force. In a sense, we might characterize the anarchist as a man without a country, for despite the ties which bind him to the land of his childhood, he stands in precisely the same moral relationship to “his” government as he does to the government of any other country in which he might happen to be staying for a time…

    The anarchist is like “a man without a country” because he lives according to the principle of autonomy, the principle where he avers that he must obey his own law, and only obeys the laws of the land out of expediency or because they’re in accord with a law he’d give himself. Autonomy and authority are diametrically opposed, and the anarchist in principle believes it always best to choose to be autonomous to the extent that it’s possible.

    … If autonomy and authority are genuinely incompatible, only two courses are open to us. Either we must embrace philosophical anarchism and treat all governments as non-legitimate bodies whose commands must be judged and evaluated in each instance before they are obeyed; or else, we must give up as quixotic the pursuit of autonomy in the political realm and submit ourselves (by an implicit promise) to whatever form of government appears more just and beneficent at the moment… It is out of the question to give up the commitment to moral autonomy… When I place myself in the hands of another, and permit him to determine the principles by which I shall guide my behavior, I repudiate the freedom and reason which give me dignity. I am then guilty of what Kant might have called the sin of willful heteronomy.

    The anarchist seems to share some overlap with the libertarian. They are both ultimately committed to freedom and autonomy. But libertarians believe the way to get there is to minimize government and cut to the chase—they want to mate the king but without all the foreplay. Anarchists, however, believe there may be multiple avenues that will allow greater and greater freedom and autonomy. This is why it’s so hard to get a straight answer out of them when you ask, regarding making a more perfect world, “So what do you think the solution is?” Freedom can come in baby steps as well as leaps and bounds, and we’re invited to be suspicious of proposed avenues to get to a greater freedom that would seem to undermine the very thing we’re all after.

    I am not an anarchist. I think there are other valuable principles worth fighting for than autonomy—but autonomy is a principle well worth preserving. Therefore, to the extent that anarchists fight for autonomy, they’re fellow travelers. What I do hope is taken seriously, however, not only by the anarchists but people no matter what their political affiliations are, is that there are always more pressing and proximal goals to attend than some final vision of society. There are any number of issues worth tackling as they’re really affecting us, including crime, health care, and poverty, and if we believe in principles like tending to the less fortunate, reducing suffering, and extending our fellow feeling to other human beings, then it ought to be reflected in behavior somehow.

  4. Topic for #105: Kant on the Beautiful


    It’s been a long time since we read Kant (see here and here), and folks always like our aesthetics episodes (see here, here, and here), so now you get the best of both worlds: Kant’s Critique of Judgment, aka the third critique, which aims to somehow bridge the gap between his epistemology (first critique) and ethics (second critique). If it seems funny to try to do this by talking about art, it might sound even stranger when you learn that the book also contains a big section on teleology, i.e. how in science we interpret data as if there was purpose in it, e.g. in talking about the function of an organ in a body or in describing the tendencies of a particle in physics.

    For this episode (recorded 10/28/14 with the full foursome), we read Part I, Book I, i.e. “Analytic of the Beautiful.” We’ve already decided for episode 107 to read Part I, Book II on the sublime.

    Kant wants to distinguish finding something beautiful from actually wanting it. If you see a painting of a nude and you like it because it inspires lust, that’s not an aesthetic judgment. It’s OK if a work does inspire you with lust, or longing, or something else, but a judgment of beauty can’t be based on that, according to Kant. You have to be disinterested insofar as you’re making an aesthetic judgment. Another way to put it is that if it’s representational art, like a picture, you don’t care whether the thing exists in reality. In fact, you might not want it to really exist, like a picture of a fearsome monster, but it could still be beautiful.

    Judgments of beauty are also not really about the object, but are about our reactions to it. When I say that something is beautiful, what I’m really saying is that it gives me pleasure, but pleasure of the disinterested sort just described (which is a funny sort of pleasure; I could recognize that something is beautiful even if I’m not personally in the mood to enjoy it right now), and, moreover, because I don’t think it’s some quirk in me that makes me enjoy it (like if I enjoyed spicy food due to my particular palate), then I expect that everyone else should find it beautiful too. So Kant thinks that there’s a “common sense” in all of us, i.e. that we can recognize the beautiful because we all react in the same way in the presence of a beautiful object. So even though a judgment of beauty is subjective (meaning it’s really about the subjects feeling pleasure), we are justified in speaking as if it were about the object due to this universality.

    But Kant recognizes that clearly not everyone will find a beautiful object beautiful, so this universality can’t be a matter of actually looking at people’s reactions. As with Kant’s morality, where the Categorical Imperative was given to us by Reason a priori, judgments of beauty involve the transcendental, i.e. they involve us imposing expectations on experience which Kant also thinks are justified a priori (just like mathematical truths, which we can’t learn from the world, because the world could never show us that they’re necessarily true).

    As with his epistemology, where Kant was trying to come up with a synthesis of insights from rationalists (knowledge is from reason) and empiricists (knowledge is from experience), here he’s trying to synthesize and transcend the views that, on the one side, beauty is something in the object that we can understand by analyzing beautiful things (e.g. all beauty involves the golden ratio) and on the other side, that the only way we can talk about matters of beauty is by looking at what people like. Kant denies the rationalists here by saying that beauty is non-conceptual, that you can’t put into words what it is. He denies the empiricists by insisting that some people just have bad taste, and we can know what’s beautiful even if some people (including us!) might be wrong in particular judgments about it.

    So remember that for Kant, the Understanding is the faculty that deals with the phenomenal world, i.e. the world that science studies. It uses the Categories like causality and number to interpret everything we see, to in effect form our experience. Reason, on the other hand, is a higher level faculty that tries to integrate everything, e.g. looking for fundamental laws. Now, Reason likes to reach beyond the phenomenal world to Things-In-Themselves, which is a mistake if you’re talking about theoretical reason: we needed the Critique of Pure Reason to tell us that, e.g. causality is a concept that only applies to the world we could potentially experience, and we have no idea if it applies outside of that, so any attempt to use it to, for instance, say that there’s a first cause of everything and so prove (or disprove) the existence of God is fundamentally confused. That’s a theoretical use of Reason for Kant, which is different than practical Reason, which is what he thinks gives us the Categorical Imperative (and even ends up proving in a very indirect way that we have to assume that God exists; we discussed that in episode 39).

    So the field of objects that the Understanding covers is the phenomenal realm. Reason also covers those objects, but tries to extend itself wider to everything, so you can think of the Thing-In-Itself (the noumenal realm) as being the field that’s particular to Reason (with the above caveats that Reason tends to screw up and make too many claims about it, which is what all metaphysics amounts to). Well, Judgment is a faculty too, but it doesn’t have its own special field of objects. It’s used on the one hand in cognition to apply the concepts (the Understanding’s transcendental Concepts like causality, but also ordinary empirical concepts like being an apple or being green) to individual things in perception. In doing that, it’s bringing the Understanding in contact with particulars. But Judgment also serves to try to figure out new concepts for the particulars we see, which is getting into the realm of Reason’s unifying activities. So you might say that Understanding and Reason run in parallel, with Reason operating at a higher level of abstraction, and Judgment then runs vertically to connect the two of them and to connect them to individual sensations.

    Kant uses this weird picture of the mind to try to explain what appreciating beauty amounts to. He says it involves the machinery of cognition, i.e. the faculty (Judgment) that is used to categorize things, but doesn’t actually categorize them. So it’s all about recognizing orderliness and form in things: admiring the play of the lines in a painting or the notes of a piece of instrumental music as they flow by in time. We recognize that there’s form, but we don’t conceptualize it. Yes, you can analyze a work and say, e.g. “that was a major scale,” but that operation of mind is not why the work is beautiful.

    He describes this as the “free play of faculties.” We make a judgment that something is beautiful based on feeling pleasure when the Imagination and the Understanding are “in harmony.” The Imagination is yet another faculty used for cognition, where whenever we recognize something as an egg, for instance, we have to “imagine” (i.e. remember) the other eggs we’ve seen, and whenever we even recognize a 3-dimensional object in space as what it is, we have to imagine/remember that it has sides and a back and an inside, etc.: we “synthesize the manifold” by bringing together a bunch of remembered and anticipated experiences (we discussed this a lot on our Husserl episode).

    So in a normal perception, Judgment uses Imagination to apply the concepts of the Understanding (like causality and number), and also the concepts that we came up with using Reason (e.g. like calling something an animal or fruit) to identify the thing. In an aesthetic experience, the same mechanisms are all in play, but we don’t come to a conceptual judgment: instead, we basically screw around mentally, and feel pleasure from that, and so bam! we call the thing beautiful. Strictly speaking, a judgment of ugliness, then, isn’t an aesthetic judgment: it’s just the lack of this kind of thing going on.

    Note that of course, full-on cognitions can be involved in perception of a beautiful thing. E.g. if you’re contemplating a piece of sculpture, you can recognize that it’s a sculpture, and so a physical object, and that it’s supposed to represent a cow. But at the same time, you’re also having the aesthetic experience, and in fact Kant thinks that that experience is more pure if you’re not being distracted by so many of such cognitions, e.g. if you’re not judging an example of a species. Judging the best-looking cow involves knowing something about cows and what kind of excellence is appropriate to them, and could make a sculpture of a cow much more beautiful if you had more freedom in shaping its curves just so, and not having to worry about it actually looking like a cow.

    One way that someone could have bad taste is to confuse beauty with the other kinds of approval: you might say a castle is ugly because you disapprove of the moral excess involved in castles. Wrong! Pay attention to the object itself! Or (more problematically) Kant thinks you might find some of the ornamental flourishes involved charming, and that kind of approval is more like finding food delicious or an image lust-inspiring: it’s not properly disinterested. Again, get your mind off the track of your own peccadilloes and on to the object!

    This leads Kant to revere purity in aesthetics. He likes instrumental music over something with words, and would find our pop music scene, where you end up connecting to the personality of the singer, absolutely barbaric. Likewise he says that all colors are equally beautiful (even if you might like red better than green) so long as they’re pure, and it’s the purity that presents the formal beauty (the simplest possible form, i.e. the uniform).

    You might also fail to see beauty if you fail in some stage of the cognitive processes involved, like if you just can’t follow a melody at all, or are too distracted by the picture being of a naked lady to pay attention to the formal elements, or if you don’t understand the metaphors being used in a literary work enough to see the beauty in their use. So there’s room and need for eduction about art, even though it’s non-conceptual and supposedly universal.

    So what does all this have to do with purposefulness, with teleology, as I mentioned at the beginning? Well, this free play of faculties is also described as “purposeless purposiveness.” Just as we’re using the mechanisms by which we categorize things but not actually categorizing them, recognizing but not naming form is tantamount to recognizing that something looks purposive (i.e. designed intentionally or having some evident function), without actually assigning it some particular purpose. So Judgment in recognizing the beautiful involves some of the same elements as recognizing the orderliness of nature that leads us to look for universal, scientific natural laws.

    To conclude, even though beauty can’t be put into words on Kant’s view, he ends up having a lot he can say about what kinds of things are beautiful, though, typically, he spends next to no time dwelling on actual examples that would help us understand his theory. Nonetheless, Kant’s picture of disinterested appreciation was highly influential, setting the tone for a whole era of modern aestheticians who nonetheless did not see the need to involve Kant’s whole picture of the psyche.

    Buy the book or read it online.

    I highly recommend also taking a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia article on this topic. For a nice, clear presentation, I also recommend listening to the two lectures on this book by James Grant for the University of Oxford Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art lectures (also available via iTunes U).

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  5. Democracy and the Freedom of Choice



    At a bakery you can have any kind of cake you like: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, raspberry.. Indeed thanks to the great defenders of individual choice in the baking world there are now hundreds of flavors for you to choose. You can’t choose bacon or chicken at the bakery however, and bakers have yet to introduce the lamb custard. The baking industry has been deliberately designed and regulated so as to maximize the number of available products—up to a point. In baking circles it is heretical to suggest that fish is an appropriate dessert choice. And shoes will never be for sale.

    In our economic system (bakery) one may not choose one’s salary, office, boss, or the quality of his workstation or area, and only occasionally can he choose his hours. Of course, we can choose between one terrible job where we do not have these choices and another terrible job where we do no have these choices. Why, there are many jobs available to us, in principle, wherein we cannot choose anything important. We can have chocolate crappy jobs, strawberry crappy jobs and even vanilla crappy jobs. But always at the heart of the choice is our total future restriction.

    And this is the basic structure of choice: Every choice we make is always one from a limited number of options. But our choices are not only limited by tacit assumptions about what should or should not go on cheesecake. Our choices are also limited by our looks, our wealth, our intelligence – and most of all today, by our location. More and more however, we are sold the virtue of increasing the number of options available, but not their kind or quality.

    Solutions to this problem of the “quality of economic choices” abound, but many attempts to improve the quality of the choices are systematically undermined by contemporary economic and political thinking. Democracy proper is feared and despised in many areas of the current intellectual climate and “Individual Freedom of Choice” is presented as an inviolable virtue of contemporary society – a Natural Right against which all societies should be judged. It is taken for granted that this freedom is meaningful, that its prescriptions and prohibitions are clear – that a society of great freedom is clearly distinguishable from one of limitation. And indeed, that “limitation” is the natural opposite of the freedom to choose.

    However, there is a fundamental incoherence to the universal prescription of the freedom to choose: since anyone choosing anything is impossible, the parameters of this freedom are who is choosing and what they can choose – ie., it is impossible to universalize (and thus cannot be a Right at all).

    In raising choice as such to a moral imperative we create choices for the sake of choosing, moral dilemmas where none need exist. In a system of private healthcare a parent of two children may face a dilemma: In an accident affecting both children, and with limited funds at the family’s disposal, which child should the parents prioritize? Perhaps more pertinently, in a system of private education, and with limited funds: Which child should be sent to the better private school, and which the worse? It is a virtue in a system of “free choice” for this question to be forced upon you by circumstance. With universal education, health, etc. parents are spared the horror of evaluating their child’s worth. The “cost” of a universal system is that you have fewer choices – but in what sense could this be a cost at all, in what sense can choice as such have a value (i.e., the act of choosing regardless of what options are available)?

    The relevant political and moral calculations should, then, always be: What options are we exchanging when we act politically – what new choices are being forced upon us, what is the kind and quality of their options? To be able to pose these questions, however, we cannot do so as individuals – since an individual is always beholden to the system in which they are operating. An individual can no more decide on the meaning of words in the language he’s using as how other people will treat him.

    An individual person cannot demand of society to be treated as equal to every other, for example. For some, these limitations of circumstance (the loud bigotries of society, economy, and politics) are the natural inheritance of any free person – freedom consists in playing this game, not in organizing collectively to challenge it. What individualists of this kind miss is that these bigotries are already collective decisions, that racism is merely an institution without self-awareness.

    Therefore, breaking apart collective bodies (from, say, a group of citizens to a worker’s union) does not “free” individuals from the tyranny of collective decisions; it just changes the parameters of limitation toward the irreflexive, unchanging, and narrow. In the absence of a union, the board makes all the decisions for workers. In the absence of a government, prejudice takes this role. When fewer people provide the parameters of our choices, fewer interests are expressed: When it is only the board who decides how a company is run, then people work the longest hours possible – leisure time existing only in equilibrium with efficient work. And when a larger irreflexive group provides the parameters of choice less moral interests are expressed: racism, sexism, feudalism, sectarianism and the other stupidities of spontaneous reaction.

    Thus the individual is in a constant face-off with his culture and circumstances, the tension emanating from the fundamental constraints on his choices. Only by making collective decisions reflective and accountable, by making economic, political, social and moral systems themselves available for modification – for choice – can the individual assert, through others and themself, any meaningful freedom of choice.

    –Michael Burgess

  6. Not School In November


    This month both the Fiction and the Theater group will be starting new texts, the Heidegger group will be continuing, and a new group exploring conservative political philosophy is just starting up. If you’re interested in any of these subjects or in forming a group to read something else, you can read about how PEL Not School works and join up.

    The Philosophical Fiction Group’s November book will be Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Reading will be followed by a Skype discussion to take place in early December.

    The Philosophy in Theater Group will be reading selections (listed on their page) from The Grotowski Sourcebook, This one will also culminate in a Skype discussion which has yet to be scheduled.

    The Heidegger Group will continue making its way through Being and Time\ this month, so check out their page to learn more. These folks have been recording their talks as they work through the book, and have accumulated an impressive backlog.

    Last but not least, our new Conservative Political Philosophy Group will reading and discussing Michael Oakeshott’s essay On Being Conservative (originally 1956, contained in the compendium Rationalism in Politics and other essays. They could use a few more members, so if political philosophy is your thing, you might want to check them out.

    It’s early in the month, so you can still get a November group off the ground if you hurry. New proposals pop up all the time, so remember to check the forum.

    Enjoy your reading.

    - Daniel Cole

  7. The Theater Group Discusses Victor Turner’s “From Ritual to Theatre”

    Victor Turner

    Victor Turner

    During late October, the Philosophy and Theater Group (Carlos Franke, Philip Cherny and Daniel Cole) wrapped up a month and a half long study of Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. For anyone out there who may have listened to our Schechner or Artaud discussions, this one tops off many of the themes and issues we explored in those. PEL Citizens can find all of these on the Free Stuff for Citizens page, and if you aren’t a member yet, take a look at some of the perks of membership.

    Victor Turner was a true inter-disciplinarian, and this book draws from his own work in anthropology, as well as philosophy, drama and sociology. Like Richard Schechner, Turner believed that acting out the rituals of other cultures provides a rich, sympathetic connection to them that can’t be accessed from detached observation or the perusal of data. Like Erving Goffman, Turner saw drama and ritual all over the place in developed societies, with plenty of parallels to the tribal cultures he’d studied in Africa.

    Come listen to us try to get a handle on the “liminal” and the “liminoid”, as well as Turner’s conception of “social drama.”  These naturally led into questions about what the self is between or outside of the roles we play, and what the experience of the liminal phase might be like.

    For November, we’re exploring the work of Jerzy Grotowski by way of The Grotowski Sourcebook. This will culminate in a live discussion that will likely take place in early December, so swing by our page if you’re interested in joining us.  New members are always welcome.

    - Daniel Cole

  8. Libertarianism Sensibilities and the Tools of Social Change


    I’m gratified that from what I can tell, we weren’t wildly unfair in our Nozick episode, and in particular that Metcalf’s participation apparently didn’t irredeemably taint our coverage, what with his being an already established opponent of the text.

    As is typical when we cover and largely pan a work related to a movement that people are invested in, we get more requests to cover different texts that would make the case more effectively (in this case, a couple of people have brought up Michael Huemer. I would encourage such people to go create a Not School group right now to talk about it, as no further forays into this area are scheduled or anticipated. If you start a group and record your discussion, I will eventually get around to doing another Not School highlights episode, meaning that at least the beginning of your discussion will get shared with the full PEL listenership.

    Our next planned steps in sort-of political philosophy are in economics, covering Smith first, then probably a Keynes-Hayek combined episode. We’ll also definitely get to an anarchism episode, i.e. Proudhon/Bakunin. That’s all I can safely predict at this point, though your suggestions are always welcome and will certainly be considered (especially if we hear the same suggestion from enough different people).

    So that leaves us where we often are given our “great books”-based approach: we’ve considered the main representative of a view according to the philosophical canon, but arguably haven’t grasped with the issue itself. Disgruntled libertarians can join the Marxists and and atheists and theists and people who think we read the wrong Merleau-Ponty text or haven’t yet received proper guidance on Lacan.

    So our opinions about libertarianism as a wider social position beyond Nozick’s book will for the foreseeable future instead be a product of lots of third-hand gossip and encounters with irritating dorm-mates or things we heard in the media or whatever, i.e. how people normally get their opinions who don’t make a concerted scholarly effort to grapple with a view. So I invite libertarian-leaning listeners to engage us here to help us understand what we may be missing.

    To me, the rationality behind someone’s libertarianism has everything to do with what kinds of nasty government actions they have in mind when they say that government action is in general, or outside of specified narrow limits, unjustified. When Thoreau was complaining about government, he had in mind the stupid wars of his day and the enforcement of slavery, which are pretty damned good things to complain about. If your problem with the federal government today is foreign wars and drones, I’m with you, though I also recognize that I don’t actually know much about foreign affairs, and just about nothing about strategic defense of American interests. As we discussed as far back as our first episode and more recently on our Oppenheimer episode, we necessarily rely to a very large degree on expert opinions, and so when it comes to fighting terrorism or the like, the best I feel I can do is try to gauge whether the people we put in charge of such things are corrupt or not, i.e. whether they’re going to be doing primarily the bidding of their campaign contributors or whether they actually have the public interest in mind. I tend to think that most people in public service, given that public service doesn’t pay as much as the private sector, are at least trying to do the right thing.

    What’s my rationale for that opinion? It’s a “bullshitty” one, to quote myself re. Thoreau. I work with some people with some government power (mostly in the transportation sector), and have thought and researched enough about the relationship between jobs and human nature to feel confident that people don’t want to live wasted, shitty, corrupt lives. While a low-level government job may attract many a person in search of a sinecure (this is one of my favorite words; look it up if you don’t know it!), if you’re actually going to work at something, you want it to matter. I have less understanding of real-world instances of the raw motivation toward power that characterizes public servants in our media, but, as with money, think it obvious that such a hunger would be much more easily satisfied in the private sector than in our checks-and-balances system.

    Inevitably, any attempt to generalize about the psychology of libertarians is going to be highly inapplicable to many of them, but if we’re dealing in anecdote and near-groundless generalization, as semi-philosophical essays about the social apparently must according to Wes, then here goes:

    Libertarians like Thoreau tend to be both highly cynical, contra my assessment of public servants above, and maybe also think that there’s something about government power in particular that corrupts more than other kinds of power, probably because of the whole monopoly on force thing. Someone high up an a corporate, or academic, or nonprofit political organization may well be an ass and promote policies that exploit others, but he can’t have his underlings and constituents arrested or killed.

    The problem here is how to provide a tempered response to a real problem. I had a musician friend once who was so paranoid about being robbed that he would always keep his blinds closed so that no one passing would so much as see his equipment and start hatching plans to steal it. Some people are so worried about driving or flying that they simply won’t do these things. What makes for a rational response to a real risk is a matter of judgment, and so people with different sensibilities are going to put more or less emphasis on particular threats.

    I actually found David Brin to be pretty persuasive on this: we shouldn’t discount any of our concerns about the power of any elites, private or public, but should recognize that it’s not the level of power someone has that matters (and we can’t do much about this anyway), but what’s done with the power. I’m not concerned with arguing that in principle, some elites need to be restrained from any possible bad moves, but am concerned with there being accountability for and checks on all elites.

    Another point of what I’d call personality-engendered disagreement is how you view the possibility of social change and our personal and collective responsibility for bringing that about. I’m a liberal, of course, in the sense that I see many of the world’s evils as capable of being addressed… maybe not cured, but greatly greatly lessened. There’s no reason given our level of overall world wealth why we should still have poverty. There’s no reason why we have to keep wrecking our environment. We can’t remove natural disasters, but we can develop more effective ways of responding to them to mitigate long-term damage. We can’t stop disease and death, but we can invest a lot in medical research and more in propagating preventive care and other medical resources that we already have. We can’t get rid of religious strife and power struggles and general human dickishness, but we can change aspects of the culture through more communication and better guidance. (Would you have believed when you were a kid that bullying would actually be getting real treatment as a problem in the way it has been of late?)

    So there’s a lot that I think needs to be done to address these problems, and I don’t really give a crap who does it. If a corporation can address one of these needs, great, and if they get rich in the process, fine. But as we know, corporations aren’t designed to serve the public interest (well, some are), so it becomes the task of government to defend those who don’t have the resources to defend themselves. This, I think, is the position of the very centrist Democratic party of today: We just want things to work, dammit. We want effectiveness, we want long-term planning, we want deep thought about a vision of the future but don’t want to sacrifice any incremental gains that might actually be politically achievable in the name of some principle that not enough people will understand or be on board with to allow it to result in new laws.

    Given my mindset, I have little patience for someone who gets hung up on some bias against government action (or against private ownership, or again religious organizations, or against international aid, etc., etc.). You might argue that one can’t legislate change: that real change comes from within, from changing people’s hearts and minds in the war of ideas. This ignores one of Marx’s fundamental insights, which is that people adapt to their material circumstances, and typically our ideas express the status quo or the teleology inherent in the system in which we live. So, for example, you can’t legislate that people stop being racist, but you can use laws to discourage discrimination and positively give opportunities to minorities. In the short term, this creates tension, in that, for example, whites suspect that any minority in a position of power was only there because of affirmative action. But as a long-term proposition, the result is more minorities in positions of power, and people obeying that power as they generally must, and so what was most terrible about old, racist society largely dissipates.

    I sometimes romanticize my time in school, because it’s an example of where most of us lived under a different kind of governing structure, and in my case (in my affluent Chicago suburb that to this day always votes “yes” on referenda to shower the high school with new and improved facilities), the result was very positive. No, I’m not advocating for a paternalistic society that determines our main activities, but what worked for me was that there was of course the main activity (classes) which was at least designed with our human capacities and interests in mind (yay, New Work), and then there were all these extracurricular opportunities (sports teams, drama, etc.) that only only gave us something to sink our ambitions into, but there was a culture that was amenable to fostering friendships and consequently cooperative efforts not sponsored by the school, like, say, starting a rock band or running an underground magazine.

    I’m more than aware that lots of people had very different experiences of school, and am not urging that model on society as a whole, but it tells us something about the possible relationship between intentionally designed, institutional community and human thriving. College provides another set of models we can learn from, as do many civic, church, and business communities. To rule out government action on grounds of principle is as foolish as ruling out any role for technology in conquering our problems.

    But any such openness to central (or highly decentralized!) planning, and any admission that there are problems that are “ours” as a larger collective instead of belonging to each of us as individuals or maybe at best families, already runs against what I’ve witnessed as the sensibilities of many a libertarian. Some are pessimists and/or cynics: the problems of the world are bad enough that admitting the world or even the whole nation to our circle of care will simply ensure that nothing gets solved… they’ll just drag us down, whether through their orneriness or laziness or simply because they’ve got it too bad for us to add their problems to our plate. Some deny the connection between human hardship and happiness, taking Freud to mean that we’re pretty much going to be unhappy however we structure things, so why worry about it? It’s hard enough dealing with your own shit. Some simply don’t give a shit at all about other people as a species, and deny on principle that we are fundamentally social beings.

    In our Nozick discussion, this came up in our confusion/disagreement re. whether Nozick had anything to say about ethics proper. You could (as I interpret Nozick) take him to be arguing against any government duty towards positive ethical action (specifically, arguing that any attempt to follow such a duty would violate a moral side constraint) while accepting that as human beings, we do have duties towards each other. Seth maintained instead that Nozick’s position that individuals can’t have such positive duties either. Clearly, Thoreau was not only against government charity, but against charity altogether. Or you could believe that government shouldn’t try to help, but we still as individuals and voluntary agencies should. I take neither position to be well justified, but at least the latter isn’t obviously misanthropic.

    Most often, I hear the accusation that we naive liberals just don’t understand economics, that we fail to recognize how somehow any action by government screws up the not-perfect-but-the-best-we-can-do action of free markets. This challenge I do take seriously, which is why we need to do a short survey of economic theory. My initial hypothesis is that economics is our modern theology, and that it’s just as bullshitty as old-time theology was. Collecting more data and examining historical patterns does not predict the future, and the disagreement among major economists (left- vs. right-wingers) as well as their failure under any administration to effectively address real-world economic problems (or tell us with with any confidence what the economy would look like if some actions had been taken or not) makes me think it’s all a high-priced guessing game, used, then, by this class of libertarian to justify their political opinions which are actually based on sentiment, i.e. bullshit.

    By all means, I encourage our listeners to tell me what I’m missing here, and that means actually telling us here, not just pointing me at some 300 page text that for sure none of us will read. Thanks as always for your patience in reading my bullshit.

    Best, -Mark

  9. The Wild and the Good


    While Henry David Thoreau was conducting his life experiment, living simply and deliberately in a cabin alongside Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts in 1845, he began to feel that “[t]he wildest scenes had become unaccountably familiar.” In Walden, he wrote, “I find myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.” Words like these hint toward an ostensible tension between a higher and a lower nature. But another way to read his account in Walden is that Thoreau thought, as has been evidentially borne out, that one and the same human nature can be the source for self-control, empathy, and reason on the one hand and dominance, revenge, and violence on the other. Further, the norms and institutions we create for ourselves will either cultivate our spiritual lives or allow our tendencies toward harm and destruction to thrive. From the Wild come our tendencies toward baser behaviors but also our tendencies toward the Good.

    Thoreau’s reference to the Wild and the Good appears in Walden, in the chapter “Higher Laws,” between two incongruous passages. The passage appears after Thoreau confesses his desire to eat raw a woodchuck he saw scurrying about and before a passage saying there’s something inhumane and rather grisly about eating animals for sustenance. He writes, “No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he [the boy] does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child.” And as if to emphasize he knows how inflammatory his comparison between a suffering rabbit and a suffering child might be, he writes, “I warn you, mothers, that my sympathies do not always make the usual phil-anthropic distinctions.” The sentence suggests that being philanthropic is not just a matter of bearing in mind the equality of persons but one of considering the suffering of all sentient creatures.

    Thoreau reasons that making an animal suffer is much like making a child suffer. The reasoning parallels contemporary ethical discussions about how to think about the suffering of animals in view of our long history of consuming them, including in the works of Peter Singer and Michael Pollan. However, Thoreau does not mean for his reasoning to be conclusive. He is debating with himself. He is inviting dissent, or at the very least dialogue regarding the issue, just as he does in Walden with the strangers he meets.

    The discussions that Thoreau has throughout his experiment in simple and deliberate living are philosophical in the broad sense. Sometimes the discussion centers on the injustices of the wage system, or at other times on what might be called the topic of multiple intelligences, Thoreau averring that those who are often called “simple” possess more intellectual capacity than they’re given credit for. The topics seem to emerge in these conversations effortlessly and naturally, like clouds from frozen water crystal, and then just as quickly pass.

    In addition to expressing empathy with the pain of other suffering creatures and reasoning about abstract topics as they pertain to the practical necessities of life, Thoreau appeals to what he calls purity to guide him through his life, but which we could just as easily call self-control. Thoreau writes of this self-control: “Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute him.” We are fundamentally physical creatures, Thoreau says, biological animals with a capacity to use our bodies as we will—but with that comes the responsibility to use them for nobler purposes. And this is what self-control amounts to, and what it would mean if we are to follow Thoreau’s command to wake up. Thoreau writes:

    Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep… To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

    We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.

    Self-control, alongside empathy and reason, helps us focus reform on creating a better quality of life for other people first within ourselves. The norms we follow and encourage others to follow and the institutions we create, if they are built upon our strengths, will actually lead to a better world. Pioneers like Henry David Thoreau, the American Transcendalists, the Enlightenment figures, and the Renaissance and Church reformers before us have made it possible for us to live in a better world where extreme poverty has fallen, global inequality is at an all-time low, and violence is declining, to name a few issues. Other problems abound, of course—two of the issues at the forefront of my mind are poverty and income inequality and the decline of democracy within the United States. There is still more work to be done to make our wild biological selves expressive of our virtues. But we’ll get there, with a little organization and effort.

    —Billie Pritchett

  10. Nozick on Metaphysics, Yoga, and, Um, Self-Gratification


    Big, meaty questions, those we tend to associate with metaphysics, inhabit the intellectual ecosystem like slaughtered prey on the plains. Once the lions of science take them down, carrion seekers—religion vultures, philosophy maggots—take over to see that the bones are picked clean, and whenever we gnaw at them, we could be said to be doing philosophy, at least in some way. Not all philosophers concern themselves with what “it” and “mean” mean when we say “What does it mean?” but those who devote careers to these questions tend to be philosophers.


    The Ouroboros

    Before the Continental/Analytic divide, Leibniz, who has since become a major figure for thinkers on both sides of the aisle, asked “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, which the Continental Heidegger called “the only genuine philosophical question.” Later, Wittgenstein, a hero of the Analytic school, pointed out that just because a sentence can work grammatically doesn’t mean it has any real content. The Why Something question would, in all likelihood, be one of those topics that he would have us pass over in silence.

    And yet, Nozick, another major figure of the Analytic tradition, seemed to have missed the memo about what not to talk about, because in his later work Philosophical Explanations he discusses just about everything. He is best known for contributing one of the two major works of 20th century political philosophy, but in Explanations he shows that epistemology, ethics, free will, and metaphysics are on his radar as well. Like a 20th century Aristotle, his interests in this book cover just about every field of inquiry (except aesthetics—unlike Plato’s most famous student, which is fine with me because I never much liked the Poetics anyway).

    It is this last topic that drew me to this work of his, because in trying to account for the diversity of the world he appeals not to staid questions of universals or forms or types and tokens but to an all-embracing notion he calls the principle of fecundity. Like David Lewis’s modal realism, it is an attempt to reframe the question of why is the world the way it is when it could have been any number of others ways. His approach, like Lewis’s, is a kind of maximalism in which all possible worlds exist and all are equally real.

    As an Analytic philosopher to the core, he cannot quite make peace with the idea of “brute facts,” those final givens beyond which we simply cannot explain or understand anything further. (When a child asks why he shouldn’t put his hand on a flame and you explain that it will burn him, and then he asks why and you explain that skin is destroyed by fire, and then he asks why and you say “Just because,” you’ve reached a brute fact threshold. (A scientist could come in and explain more, but even she will reach a point at which she will have to concede and say “Just because.” Those are the brutest facts of all.) Unwilling to accept a theological argument, and frustrated with circular arguments or any definition that uses the terms of the thing being defined, he proposes the fecundity principle as a way to, as his one-time undergraduate student Brian Greene once put it, “defang the question.” Nozick therefore places himself in a long and distinguished line of philosophers who solve the problem by restating it. If “this” world is no more significant than any other, you can’t even call it “this” world at all.

    If this sounds less than satisfying to you, that’s ok. Unlike Heidegger, who said the question hadn’t been properly asked until he came along, or Wittgenstein, who doubted whether it was a question at all, Nozick seems to imply that the question can be resolved but that it is just not all that pressing. At the end of his chapter on metaphysics, he admits that “we need not resolve the question; it suffices to consider, elaborate, and keep track of the hypotheses.”

    OK, I can live with that. Nozick arrives at a well-defended, if not earth-shattering, conclusion that for now the best he can do is fine-tune this central question of metaphysics and suggest a path forward.

    But then things get weird. And not just weird but kind of gross. Ever fearful of infinite regress, he rejects the possibility that the universe could be its own explanation; this is derived from the self-evident notion that you cannot include the word for a thing in its definition without lapsing into tautological absurdity. This strikes me as a perfectly sound, perhaps even essential, bit of reasoning. It falls short, however, when trying to take on the Big Questions, especially when the “what” is as hard to define as the “why.” Trying to clarify the link between the two is an even more convoluted endeavor. Nozick’s strategy is to do something very un-Analytic: He appeals to mysticism, specifically that of the Hatha Yoga practitioner. (This book was published in 1981, when, I suppose, yoga hadn’t quite become assimilated into the mainstream to the extent it has today.) He devotes a footnote at the end of the chapter on metaphysics entirely to yoga in which he refines and to some extent undercuts the already limited credence he gives to the mystic’s privileged insight into the Why-Something question:

    The practitioner of Hatha Yoga develops extraordinary suppleness and physical capabilities, and the yoga manuals are explicitly dark and mysterious about some of the practices. …[The practitioner is] warned to keep some things very secret and to do them only in private.

    Then Nozick launches a barrage of questions, sounding like an interrogator pounding the table, demanding answers:

    What are the yoga manuals keeping hidden, which the practitioner is expected to come to himself? What does the cutting of the fraenum linguae aid [the flap of skin attaching the tongue to the bottom of the mouth]? What nectar is brought upwards and drunk? What is the mouth of the well of nectar over which the tongue is placed and what ambrosia is drunk daily?

    What, indeed? If you want the truth and think you can handle the truth, Nozick has it for you: “I conjecture that one of the acts the (male) yogis perform…is auto-fellatio.”

    I’m going to let that sink in for a minute.

    OK. Now you may be asking what such a conjecture is doing in a philosophical treatise. (I know I did.) Well, Nozick points out, this image of self-gratification is reminiscent of the ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, a symbol of creation as an act of self-consumption. Of course, under even the slightest scrutiny the metaphors fall apart: Fellatio, auto- or otherwise, doesn’t lead to procreation, and the snake is eating, not stimulating, its tail and not its genitals. (There’s also nothing in the ouroboros that leads us to believe it is necessarily male.) So chill out Bob, you pervert.

    Still, there is something to this, if only for the flexibility Nozick demonstrates by his willingness to stretch the austere logic of analytic philosophy—rather than looking for ways to obviate metaphysical inquiry entirely like, say, Wittgenstein. You may think his reasoning and/or his conclusions are profound, ridiculous, or both (as is my impression), but wherever you stand about this as a philosophical insight, I think one thing is clear: Nozick shows that however you look at them, Big Questions can be a mouthful.

    —David Crohn

  11. Episode 104: Robert Nozick’s Libertarianism


    NozickOn Anarchy, State & Utopia (1974), ch. 1-3 and 7.

    What moral limits should we put on government power? Nozick thinks that the only legitimate functions of government are protection and enforcement of contracts. Contra Rawls, Nozick’s “entitlement” version of justice doesn’t look at income inequality or any other pattern of holdings, but only at whether holdings were legitimately obtained, e.g. through purchase, gift, inheritance, reparation, or taking something unclaimed. Of course, since our current distribution of wealth has its historical roots deep in war and pillaging… Hey, never mind that, says Nozick!

    The full foursome are joined by Slate‘s Stephen Metcalf. Read more about the topic and get the book, and also listen to Seth’s introduction.

    End song: “Samuel” by Geoff Esty (with singing by Mark), revamped from the 1994 album Happy Songs Will Bring You Down by The MayTricks. Read about it.

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

    Please also visit our new sponsor, mobile service provider Ting. Go to and get $25 off your order.

  12. Partially Naked Self-Examination Music Blog: Geoff Esty’s “Samuel”


    lonely catListen to “Samuel” by The MayTricks (re-sung version and the Geoff-sung original, released on the 1994 album Happy Songs Will Bring You Down).

    As I’ve described before, my band in college featured (from ’91-’94) the adventurous jazz guitarist Geoff Esty,
    who gave us some cred with his fleet fingers. He’s also a songwriter (you can hear/watch his current activities here), but we only played maybe a half dozen of his songs, partly because they were usually complex enough that they took up much more rehearsal time than anyone else’s tunes.

    One tune he brought in around maybe 1992 was this gorgeous acoustic thing, with a chord progression and melody like a jazz standard, and just devastatingly sad. We felt a little less sorry for Geoff on hearing that this was about his cat, Samuel, which made lyrics such as “biting down on my blanket, his hopes dim.” But still, it was obviously a confessional tune, shameless in its nakedness, to the point that it makes one a little uncomfortable. (I’ve written that kind of thing too, of course.)

    Given the isolation depicted, this seemed a good match for our Nozick episode. (Yes, I know that Nozick is only against enforced government non-interference, not against any and all social interactions, and plan to write a blog post on the interaction between this technical version of libertarianism and its overtly anti-social cultural variants.) However, in taking a listen to the recorded version, I was brought back to a point of disagreement from the time:

    Another reason we didn’t play more of Geoff’s songs is that he tended to want to sing them, which, to put it gingerly, did not typically go over well with audiences. For the “Saumel” recording, we first captured Geoff’s main guitar and possibly his vocal (I think this was in 1992, as it’s on the 4-track tape right after “Green Song.”) The layered backing vocal part was what, for this tune, so occupied our time during band rehearsals, so I decided to just record the damn thing entirely by myself to get it out of the way. (Geoff had created that part so that we could essentially imitate his guitar part near the end of the song while he was then playing a guitar solo; we didn’t add a second guitar or otherwise do anything else to this live.)

    At the same time, I recorded myself singing it, to try to convince Geoff that this would sound better (I and/or Steve had sung lead on a couple of his other songs, so this wasn’t unprecedented), but this song was personal enough to him that he wanted to keep his vocal on there: my own lead vocal was deleted when he filled up the fourth track on our 4-track with a second guitar part to thicken things out and add some tasteful, slippery riffs in the chorus and later verses.

    In wanting to re-expose the song to the world by putting it at the end of this episode, I found I just couldn’t put in on there in its original form, so I just now recorded a new lead vocal (it’s amazing how embedded in my brain the song still was; it was a nearly effortless undertaking) and remixed it. Unlike for “Green Song,” the original mix for this was already quite good, but I was able to patch up a couple of rhythmic issues and hopefully give the tracks a nice environment to sit in (although I didn’t notice until after I was done the rather nice whole-track fade-in at the beginning of the song in the original version, which helps to justify the intro being that long).

    So Geoff’s vocal got to sit on there for 20 years, and I’m still linking to that version here; hopefully he won’t mind my attempting to make this accessible to a wider audience by adding back my own singing. It was certainly fun for me, and I hope you like the tune and give Geoff some long-deserved accolades, like you could go pick up his solo guitar album.

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  13. Thoreauly Ponderous


    Painting - Manifest Destiny

    Our present relationship to technology can hardly be compared to the situation Thoreau faced in 1854, when Walden was first published. American attitudes toward nature began to shift in his lifetime, as steamboats and railroads appeared on the scene. The advent of such penetrating technologies meant that the ordering force of civilization had gained a powerful new advantage in its ongoing efforts to tame the wilderness. Before these developments emerged in the middle of the 19th century, nature was seen as a wild and dangerous obstacle to travelers and to the advancement of civilization. But in this period American authors (and painters) took a romantic turn and began to see nature as a place of sublime beauty and spiritual renewal.

    In Walden Thoreau hopes that his experiment in living a natural and simple life at Walden Pond will teach him to see either “the whole and genuine meanness of it” or to see “if it were sublime.” His famous project was aimed, among other things, at weighing the advantages of civilization and technology against the value of nature and simplicity. He ventures out to the edge of town just two miles from his home, builds his cabin on Emerson’s land, and attempts to inhabit the edge of both worlds.

    We, on the other hand, live in a post-industrial urban nation, on an urban planet, where most people are city dwellers and many people feel the need to fight to save what’s left of nature. The smoke and noise of 19th century steam engines seem quaint now that we measure annual carbon emissions in billions of tons. The environmental movement began to take shape approximately 100 years after Walden was published. The Resources and Conservation Act of 1959 was one of the first major milestones. In 1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring greatly expanded the scope of this movement. Her book focused on the environmental impact of chemical pesticides like DDT. Large chemical companies like DuPont were harshly critical for a year or so but Carson’s book received a series of prestigious awards in 1963 and it was still casting a long shadow when the Environmental Protection Agency was first formed in 1970. It has been included on many lists of the 20th century’s greatest works of non-fiction. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) is set in this period, depicting a road trip that occurred in 1968 and humanity’s relationship to nature and technology is a key theme in the book. A paperback copy of Walden is among the items packed for this father-son road trip.

    After a while I reach into my pack for the paperback by Thoreau, find it and have to strain a little to read it to Chris in the grey rainy light. ..What happens is I read a sentence, he comes up with a long series of questions about it and then, when he’s satisfied, I read the next sentence. We do this with Thoreau for a while, but after half an hour I see to my surprise and disappointment that Thoreau isn’t coming through. Chris is restless and so am I. The language structure is wrong for the mountain forest we’re in. At least that’s my feeling. The book seems tame and cloistered, something I’d never have thought of Thoreau, but there it is. He’s talking to another situation, another time, just discovering the evils of technology rather that discovering the solution. He isn’t talking to us. Reluctantly I put the book away again and we’re both silent and meditative. It’s just Chris and me and the forest and the rain. No books can guide us anymore.

    By the time Zen was published the hippie movement had mostly come and gone. This subculture is famous for its anti-war stance, its support for civil rights and feminism, and also for its love of sex, drugs and Rock and Roll but slightly less obvious was their vague back-to-nature aesthetic and ethos. The hippies often imitated the styles and fashions of native Americans or other primary cultures, as they imagined them anyway. You know–bare feet, headbands, love beads, fringed jackets of animal skin and, more to the point, these styles reflected an aversion to technological society and a love of nature.

    This is the context in which Pirsig’s narrative is set. The novel’s “plot,” if we can call it that, centers around a cross-country motorcycle trip with his young son and two of his technology-averse hippie friends. These friends “and millions of others like them” don’t have any real solutions, he says, except at a personal level wherein they simply abandon “square” culture altogether and operate on feelings instead. In real life the Sutherlands were not hippies (although John Sutherland was a drummer who remained unpersuaded by Pirsig’s defense of technology) but this characterization helps to set up a series of dichotomies: art and technology, hip and square styles, romantic and classical thinking. Pirsig’s solution entails a fusion of each of these opposites, with the fusion of art and technology already being suggested in the title of the book. The hybrid form of the book can even be seen as a kind of performance of this fusion in the sense that it is a philosophical thesis embedded in a novel, an artful form of rationality. Like Thoreau’s Walden, it also contains a strong autobiographical element. For Pirsig, the problems with technology are symptomatic of a larger, deeper problem. Our Western modes of rationality are at the root of the problem and so his solution to a cultural crisis is focused on an analysis of rationality itself. “A study of the art of motorcycle maintenance,” he writes, “is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.”

    Despite his published complaints that Walden is “talking to another situation, another time,” Pirsig’s work is part of the same Chautauqua tradition and in real life he’s actually a pretty big fan. As was mentioned previously, a few years ago I wrote to ask Pirsig what he thought about Emerson in particular and American Transcendentalism in general. Pirsig wrote back, saying he agreed with Emerson to some extent but that “there is always a whiff of ministerial unction in his rhetoric.” Pirsig continued, “Thoreau never sounded unctuous and I could read him forever.” Similarly, he had recently visited Emerson’s house but the most interesting thing about the tour was what he learned about Thoreau–and Zen Buddhism.

    Thoreau & the Buddha

    He wrote,

    The best thing I took away from Emerson’s house was a story. When Thoreau was about to walk down to nearby Walden Pond, Emerson offered him a walking stick. ‘No’ said Thoreau, ‘That’s too much company.’ What an insight into him! ‘Simplify, simplify,’ he said. ‘As he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.’ This likeness to Zen is overwhelming.

  14. New Work Conference Summary Report


    Per my message last week, I just attended the New Work, New Culture Conference in Detroit this last weekend. Now, this was organized by folks from the Boggs Center, so the overall orientation of the conference was one of activism against the “occupation” of Detroit.

    I don’t know the number of attendees at this point, but it was a gym packed with people, many from Detroit but also many who traveled in from other states and even some international attendees. The speakers (not chosen by Frithjof) were pretty disparate; some of them didn’t know each other and/or weren’t very familiar with or to the Detroit group or Frithjof’s immediate cohorts. There were enough people there I think unfamiliar enough with New Work basics that just explaining what it is was a daunting task. Frithjof’s spiel focused on “most people don’t like their jobs, and certainly the unemployed or precariously employed don’t like the system… we can do better!” while Blair Evans of Incite-Focus Detroit provided the really amazing illustration of how community production through a fab lab can work (the video for both of these things as well as the other presentations should be up at some point). Small group discussions went over topics covering various ways of “getting off the grid,” e.g. community farming, generating electricity through home-grown means, aquaponics, time banking, acquiring funding for these various types of projects, etc.

    However, a good chunk of the conference seemed more to have to do with community organizing, and much of that wasn’t so much providing information on how to do it as actually providing a pep talk, i.e. doing the organizing as if we were the community. To me, this was somewhat confusing and misplaced: New Work is an umbrella of ideas, not itself an organization. Various community efforts can find inspiration and guidance from New Work, but New Work is not like the Green Party or some other organization that needs to sit down and as a group to come up with a mission statement and sketch out its values and all of that. The problems with work are so widespread among different populations that very different looking solutions are needed to attack each of them, and overall, the focus needs to be on getting these programs going and solving real problems by whatever means, some of them involving government, and industry, and grants whenever these are available, though in many the most pressing cases no such help is forthcoming, so the solution does have to look more like communities making their own way by their collective bootstraps, as will largely be the case with Detroit.

    Unsurprisingly, most folks involved in helping the unemployed or running community gardens or the like are self-proclaimed radical leftists, and so the message that the economic powers that be should best be fought by actually competing against them (by giving people the means of supporting themselves in a community without having to purchase so much from corporations) I think may have been unexpected. A difficulty in explaining New Work to a wider audience is convincing them that these technologies and techniques pioneered largely by hippies are possible to bring into the mainstream, i.e. without having to live in a commune or become an ascetic, and likewise (per my post that made Thoreau stand in for all anti-technologists, which I realize is not a great depiction of Thoreau, but nonetheless describes quite a few people who idolize him) some of the folks present were clearly not used to the idea of actually promoting technology, where its use is actually dictated people the community members designing it, who can insert their environmental ethics into the process (e.g. in deciding what materials are involved, the downstream and upstream costs).

    I certainly left with a lot of names of folks to try to interview for Frithjof’s YouTube Channel, so as to display the diversity of focus and viewpoints among the range of leaders who showed up. For from seeing Frithjof’s particular vision as the end statement of the project, I’m eager to document other people’s takes on how to best react to the hopefully by now uncontroversial observation that the current job system is terrible. Given the ubiquity of the problem, there should be no excuse for any portion of this non-movement to say “those people don’t have the right values and so can’t be part of this.” Promoting New Work is like promoting democracy when democracy was a new idea. Again, particular efforts to do something in a particular city should be highly focused in setting out their goals, but advocates of New Work in general need to keep from getting bogged down by the details of specific proposals, elements of some particular vision, or philosophical points. Maybe you don’t believe in the poverty of desire, maybe you emphasize entrepreneurship and someone else sees that as anathema to New Work. Maybe some want to focus on pushing the government to implement strategies to permit alternate work strategies, and others see any government action as a fundamental abuse of power. All we need to agree on at this point is recognition of the job system as legitimately problematic and that solutions really are realistically possible within our lifetime. That’s a hard enough sell to the unconvinced!

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  15. Thoreau’s Unsupported Anti-Technology Sentiments and New Work


    If you’re new to PEL and don’t know what “New Work” refers to, go listen to our episode interviewing Frithjof Bergmann, or my short precog on the topic, or check out the videos on the New Work channel I manage, or read one of the many articles I’ve written here about it (like this one).

    There’s a “Worldwide Conference” coming up on New Work in Detroit on Oct. 18-20 that I’ll be attending, so check it out if you have a serious interest. Hopefully a lot of the speakers will be taped, and I’ll try to interview some folks and maybe write up an article for publication somewhere fancier than this blog. If you go, find me and introduce yourself! Details on the conference are at

    I described in our Walden episode how Thoreau powerfully gives the intuitive grounding for New Work, i.e. that jobs, in the way they come to most of us, are positively unhealthy, and certainly fail the meaning-of-life test, meaning that whatever it is that we’re supposed to be doing (if that “supposed to” phrase means anything in this context), or whatever it is that we would really find meaningful, chances are, your job isn’t even close, nor are most other people’s jobs.

    But what do we do about this? Thoreau says, in essence, that we have to give up our appetite for luxuries and live simply, minimizing economic/social entanglements. So insofar as you can live off the land, do that. It’s easy, he says, to make some money working at your own pace at something you don’t mind, and some is all you need to get whatever you need to live.

    But as I pointed out in that discussion, there are two problems with this argument. First, economic calculations change with the times. Today’s highly regulated and market-saturated society requires we pony up a lot more cash just to live, much less live somewhere without heaps of crime. On the flip side, lots of technology, and the results of that technology, have become much cheaper, so that, for example, a very minimalist lifestyle today most likely would include wi-fi of some sort.

    Second, his argument simply doesn’t work when you involve a family. Maybe in his time, a husband could simply make his wife and children live according to whatever crazy-ass “principled” lifestyle he fancied, but it’s more likely (based on his own lack of romantic entanglements) that other people are part of the bother that he thinks we should minimize involvement with. It’s hard to tell from his personal life given how young he died (age 43)… Despite never being married, he did propose to someone, and in any case the experiment of Walden is not presented as a fundamental, ultimate lifestyle, and we (or at least I) don’t know how literally he thought one could apply the lesson of simplicity to his post-Walden, more socially engaged life.

    (As a side note, some scholars have ventured that Thoreau was a closeted, non-practicing homosexual. I have no idea if that’s true, but it would be very ironic if this guy who championed being true to yourself instead used chastity and turning away from people altogether as a way of sublimating his socially forbidden desires.)

    If a simplicity-driven lifestyle can’t be supported within the context of having a partner and maybe kids, then it simply can’t be a feasible goal for general adoption; Thoreau may have found a vacation from the discontents of civilization, but not a recipe for curing them.

    I found when presenting New Work ideas to the PEL community last year that some of the folks most likely to embrace its (and Thoreau’s) complaints about jobs were highly resistant to Bergmann’s proposed solutions, which involve what he used to call “high-tech self-providing” but more recently has re-termed “community production.” This involves using technology to make production much more efficient, so you actually can do it with very little money, and not have to sacrifice comfort in favor of austere, back-to-nature asceticism. In fact, community production is principally (though not solely) designed to work in concentrated, urban areas, where there’s an actual community, and, not coincidentally, where there’s the most poverty and crime and decay now.

    I’m more than aware that a complete picture of community production and the economic calculation that would prove “yes, you can live this way viably and comfortably” is still wanting, and I can’t provide that here. But I think we know enough about the possibilities now to be able to argue about an approach to the problem: I claim that Thoreau’s anti-technological bias is a major hindrance in thinking about realistic ways to solve the work-life problem. Likewise, his insistence upon do-it-yourself individualism closes off essential avenues, and by extension the anti-government sentiment that for libertarians today trumps all other concerns makes solving this fundamental problem much more difficult.

    This is the source of my concern voiced during the podcast that Thoreau was basically talking out of his ass. Wes said that as an essayist, Thoreau is asking you to reflect on your moral intuitions, and that the alternative to his approach would be constructing some kind of system and basing your social/moral claims on that.

    I don’t think this is the problem with the anti-technology argument. Heidegger actually had a system (most recently talked about on our blog here) for justifying his anti-technology claims, and I still think they amount to unsubstantiated, sentimentalist bullshit.

    Yes, as Wes pointed out, there are clear ways in which our lives can be dominated by technology, as with any other obsession. Just as you have to put in time taking care of your house, you have to put in time unfragging your hard drives and fighting viruses and deleting spam and all that crap. You can use more technology to make those tasks easier, one could make the argument that it’s a never-ending cycle: it’s always something.

    And that kind of sentiment, “it’s always something,” much like “and that’s how they screw you!” is the essence of crank-dom. Thoreau’s claim is that whenever you invoke technology to answer a problem, you create more problems with the technology than make the benefit worth the effort. Many similarly argue that whenever government tries to solve a problem, the very fact that it’s government doing it creates more of a problem. Or you could argue that whatever benefit a corporation provides, they extract even more in cost. (That’s the point of economic transaction!)

    What kinds of claims are these? They’re not straightforward universal claims, because then you’d only have to come up with one instance where, e.g., a government action produced more benefit than harm, and the universal would be refuted. Now, I expect some people are such cranks that they’ll insist on the exceptionless truth of these claims, but we can more reasonably take them as generalizations, as truisms.

    One could then have an argument using historical examples of why technology or government or business is more often than not more of a pain than a boon, but I think that this rather misses the point, because the claims are not just generalizations about history, but somehow statements about the essence of the phenomena/institutions in question, such that no matter how many holes we plug, these things will never work.

    It is a goal of computer manufacturers to make them as user-friendly as possible, and I’d argue that it’s much much easier now for a technologically-deficient older adult to use a computer than it was in 1982. A computing device like the iPhone or X-box geared to a narrower set of purposes than a full computer is even easier. These advances prove that the ideal of technological transparency, where your device actually works, and so functions as a tool ready-to-hand (to use Heidegger’s terms) instead of an obstacle present-to-hand, is reasonable. So no, it’s not “always something” in terms of more crap for end-users to take care of, and the fact that more challenges come up results from further advances, as when the computers in an office became networked together, and then connected wirelessly, and then available through Citrix and the like to at-home use of work computers. The advances enabled not only efficiency, but (especially the last) increased freedom.

    Tele-commuting is to me one of the most literally liberating advances of recent years, but the anti-technogist can still make this argument: Yes, you can work from home, but that’s given employers the opportunity to make you work from home in addition to working at the office. Your job has become 24/7, and your freedom has actually shrunk. But clearly, this isn’t a technological problem: it’s a political one.

    Foucault described the pernicious technological advances exemplified by “the panopticon,” i.e. more technology means more ways for powers-that-be to exert their control over us. But the answer isn’t to get rid of technology (in fact, David Brin argues that technology also gives us the ability to watch the watchers), but to fix the underlying political dysfunction. Per our Oppenheimer episode, technology gives us more power and so brings conflicts that were already in existence to a head so they need to be dealt with.

    If blacks and whites hate each other (or Americans and Chinese, or star-bellied vs. plain-bellied Sneeches), but live largely in different geographic areas, then overt conflict is minimalized. If you use technology to bring them together, then there are more avenues for communicating messages of hate, yes, but also an acceleration of a dialogue toward shared understanding. To give a dramatic analogy, if members of the hating groups had a button they could push and kill members of the other group, then, after a lot of initial death, that conflict would certainly come to head and have to be dealt with.

    In this light, technology is not always good in its immediate consequences, but forces us to deal with social problems more rapidly than we otherwise might have to. But what about the more Heideggerian (and Waldenesque) claim that merely living technologically puts us out of sync with nature? That we’re no longer living fully human lives?

    This sentiment is broad and vague enough that it’s hard to counter. If taken to an extreme, it means that we shouldn’t use electric lights, heat, or even a roof over our head (caves are better!). By working with tractors instead of hoeing land by hand, are we no longer Man Farming as Emerson was concerned with, and so living an authentic life? By communicating with someone over the Internet, we’re not hearing a real voice, looking at a real person, and this certainly deprives us of some elements human contact that we need to get elsewhere, but is using such technology essentially dehumanizing? Is the fact that I wear boots mean I’m no longer in touch with the soil? At an extreme, imagine an astronaut on the moon, who can’t walk outside without protection, whose air has to be purposefully generated and conserved: would that be a life missing something essential to true humanity, and even if so, are the real effects of our present and anticipated technological advances harmful in this way?

    On what grounds do we allow in some technology but not others? I think that we have to evaluate each piece of technology (and society!) individually to see if it helps make life more satisfying or not. (Note that there’s the separate, ecological question of how living certain ways harms the environment. That’s important, certainly, but is irrelevant to Heidegger’s formulation at least: we’re concerned in this discussion with what makes life, for us, worth living. Of course, any technology that turns our air to ash, kills off animals and other features of nature that make life more satisfying, etc., will matter impact this discussion.)

    These discussions should be very familiar: For instance, television can clearly be harmful, as anyone know lived through the days where you actually had to watch commercials, and where every show had to aim at the least common denominator of idiocy. So parents nowadays often have pretty well thought out approaches to what their kids can watch and how much. As with alcohol, masturbation, video games, and even books, intemperance is a constant temptation for adults, with no real mechanism available beyond individual self-control to keep us from indulging until we screw up our lives. Technology now allows us to watch TV via phones on a near-constant basis if we want to do that. So this is another pre-existent form of conflict, a problem, that technology forces us to actually confront. If you have an addictive personality, and you now have more access to substances that might screw you up, then you have to deal with your personal problems.

    Ultimately, there’s simply a great deal of room for individuals’ tastes to determine their attitudes toward technology. Some clinical findings might tell us that certain video games or media are harmful when taken in certain doses, or that staring at a screen for too much of your day can screw up your eyes, or that cell phones give you brain cancer. Other things we can discover by ourselves, such that binge watching or all-night video-game sessions leave you groggy and probably boring. (Likewise, reading too many formulaic romance or mystery novels, or being obsessed with going to live sporting events, or any number of other low-tech behaviors can have negative consequences.) None of this adds up to a blanket denunciation of technology that any reasonable person should need to pay attention to.

    And back to the central point, none of this should make people interested in solving the problem of work rule out, in advance, potential technological solutions. I think in the case of Thoreau, he used some technology (his hammer, his knowledge of building, board other people had already cut from trees, nails made in factories, etc.) while eschewing other technology in a somewhat arbitrary way, so he could feel he was being pure and principled while still really taking advantage of the very thing he was railing against. So maybe instead of aiming for purity and naturalness, we should just try to clearly and without prejudice examine all the available options for solving our problems. If you’re not a crank, it shouldn’t be hard to admit that some technologies are on balance helpful, and some aren’t; government actions if actually successful are fine, even if historically there have been a lot of mis-administered fuck-ups; corporate actions aren’t necessarily evil just by being corporate. And yes, there’s “always something,” always some new challenge to deal with in the light of some advance (like, say, the challenges that come up in a new relationship), but that doesn’t mean that advancing wasn’t worth the effort and we should just stop.

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  16. Thoreau on Over-Eating


    It’s been suggested that my questioning of Thoreau’s (lack of) methodology was light on textual analysis.

    So here’s an example for y’all’s consideration. Wes quoted a passage from Ch. 11 ripping on over-eaters (section 5 in the annotated version): “The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.”

    Now, I think this is a ripe phenomenon for philosophical analysis, but what we get instead from Thoreau is an aphorism: utterly unsupported, flippant, borderline racist.

    Does the context help us understand his point? Here’s all of section 5 (note that it’s just the editors of the annotated edition that divided the text into sections):

    [5] I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect. I have tried it again and again. I have skill at it, and, like many of my fellows, a certain instinct for it, which revives from time to time, but always when I have done I feel that it would have been better if I had not fished. I think that I do not mistake. It is a faint intimation, yet so are the first streaks of morning. There is unquestionably this instinct in me which belongs to the lower orders of creation; yet with every year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even wisdom; at present I am no fisherman at all. But I see that if I were to live in a wilderness I should again be tempted to become a fisher and hunter in earnest. Beside, there is something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh, and I began to see where housework commences, and whence the endeavor, which costs so much, to wear a tidy and respectable appearance each day, to keep the house sweet and free from all ill odors and sights. Having been my own butcher and scullion and cook, as well as the gentleman for whom the dishes were served up, I can speak from an unusually complete experience. The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth. Like many of my contemporaries, I had rarely for many years used animal food, or tea, or coffee, etc.; not so much because of any ill effects which I had traced to them, as because they were not agreeable to my imagination. The repugnance to animal food is not the effect of experience, but is an instinct. It appeared more beautiful to live low and fare hard in many respects; and though I never did so, I went far enough to please my imagination. I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind. It is a significant fact, stated by entomologists — I find it in Kirby and Spence (4) — that “some insects in their perfect state, though furnished with organs of feeding, make no use of them”; and they lay it down as “a general rule, that almost all insects in this state eat much less than in that of larvae. The voracious caterpillar when transformed into a butterfly … and the gluttonous maggot when become a fly” content themselves with a drop or two of honey or some other sweet liquid. The abdomen under the wings of the butterfly still represents the larva. This is the tidbit which tempts his insectivorous fate. The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.

    In this section he’s been giving his opinions, also discussed in the episode, about hunting (fine for boys, a great introduction to nature, but to be grown out of). So why does he think fishing is degrading? Well, he’s not really sure; he’s trying to read himself: “It is a faint intimation.”

    He says that “every year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even wisdom,” meaning that he’s not just saying that he’s growing wiser as he grows older and so realizing that fishing is base. (Both this statement and the “faint intimation” part support my interpretation that Thoreau is, at times, self-consciously humble in his opinions: he’s musing aloud, and he knows it.) He acknowledges that if circumstances were different, i.e. if he were living in the wilderness (so he’s not now at Walden), then he’d at least be “tempted” to fish.

    Then (as Dylan brought up on the podcast), he talks about how gross cleaning fish is, and how apparently they didn’t fill him up enough to be worth it. So this is again going about simplicity, not about fishing itself being savage. According to his “imagination,” his sense of beauty, “every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind.” Then he gives this image of the caterpillar, meant evidently not as a proof, or even an illustration, but as a suggestive metaphor: to transcend the base part of our humanity is to get over sensual indulgence.

    Now, what do you all think of that, as a piece of prose, as an argument, as philosophy? To me, he’s dressing up a profoundly unoriginal sentiment in fancy clothes and acting like this is insight. And I find this sentiment profoundly problematic. What kind of being are we that has a base side and a transcendent side, and how does that relate to nature? Thoreau can’t (and shouldn’t!) rely on some simplistic mind-body dualism whereby to be spiritual is to transcend base physicality. Instead, by embracing concrete nature, he’s saying that, in essence, God is in the natural world, so vivid that you don’t even need the word “God” or any other overtly theoretical language. But nonetheless, instead of “spiritual,” we here have “poetical,” and there is still room for “higher laws” in this picture. This sounds like a great project to me: to really explain (if only by exemplification) how all the awesomeness of religious life can be obtained without believing in fairy tales and abstractions and unfounded otherwordly suppositions. I think what he’s largely doing in the text is phenomenology: he’s telling us what it’s like to be in this situation, what insights come to one.

    But the point of phenomenology is that it’s supposed to be repeatable: If I put myself in the same situation, I’d reach the same conclusions, and even just reading through the experience is supposed to be sufficient to bring one to the same point. Of course charging Thoreau with “thinking differently than others” is not an objection if by “others” you mean unthoughtful sluggards who’ve never made the attempt to live deliberately. But living close to nature is now a well-trodden path: it’s one of the things that thoughtful people do, one of the things that can make people thoughtful. The quietness, the clear view of the sky, the animal noises: all these things bring upon a certainly very spiritual experience. But like other types of mystical experience, we then fill this void with whatever it is that we already find sacred (or with some modification of this), so that for some, the wilderness would mean solitude, and for others, it would mean private time with loved ones. For some, hunting becomes spiritual; for some, hunting is totally antithetical to the appreciation of nature. For some, it means enthusiastic, athletic movement, for some, it means calm and rest.

    For Thoreau, it means asceticism, and maybe it’s just my immersion in Nietzsche (a thinker with some comparable conclusions and a similarly zesty writing style, but a much different methodology, almost painfully stringent in the way he circles back and explores the same subjects again and again from different vantages), but to me, asceticism is one of the enemies of health: it means self-hatred, and fundamental denial of even those instincts that simply can’t be dismissed. Thoreau gives us a picture of spirituality through embracing nature, including one’s instincts, and I think is really trying to feel out what this really means, but I think he’s insufficiently self-critical, and a passage like the one quoted above ultimately just leaves me shrugging at his unfounded, unattractive idiosyncrasies.

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  17. Episode 103: Thoreau on Living Deliberately


    ThoreauOn Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854).

    What is the appropriate life for a truly thoughtful person? Thoreau warns against getting ensnared by social bullshit like jobs and charity, and instead living simply, in direct contact with nature, relying as much as possible only on your own effort. His time in the woods on Walden pond was meant to be an experiment to see what life lived this way really has to offer.

    Mark, Wes, and Dylan argue about how to best take Thoreau’s brand of opinionating, and what the ethical upshot of the attempt to live naturally is supposed to be. Read more about the topic and get the book.

    End song: “Green Song” by Mark Linsenmayer, originally released on The MayTricks (1992), newly remixed. Read about it.

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

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    Interested in a bitchin’ PEL wall calendar?

  18. Partially Naked Self-Examination Music Blog: “Green Song” and “Idiot, Listen”


    GreeneryListen to “Green Song” and “Idiot, Listen” By Mark Lint.

    Fall is the time for remixes! For the Emerson episode, I finally finished a song recorded in (I think) 1998 (written in ’95), called “Idiot, Listen,” about how I should get off my ass and stop being depressed, given that my love life was in decent shape, the lack of which had always been my excuse for depression in my college years. It was basically done, but some of the tracks didn’t sound so great, but a lot of processing and a newly added kick drum on the 1 to glue things together make this sound as good as anything I freshly record now.

    “Green Song” was recorded painstakingly in 1992 (the main guitar riff for the song was written in probably 1990, with the lyrics added the following year as I mooned in Ancient Philosophy class over some woman that I thought would be a better match for me than my current girlfriend) using a 1986 (?) Casio CZ-5000 keyboard, the same model whose capacity to design new sounds and program in a step-by-step manner had astounded me when my friend had one back in my high school band days, and the Tascam Portastudio 424 that I bought in 1991 and used through 1994.

    I was able to load the sequencer and sound data back onto the Casio (from data stored on a cassette tape, before the days of disk drives!), eventually compensate for the motor on the Tascam now running decidedly slow and so making all the tracks slightly out of tune and out of time with the new recording of the sequencer, spend a crapload trying to make the taped tracks (which were already bounced so that the guitar, bass, and drums were crammed together into a mono soup, and all of which had a pretty horrible old reverb sound on them that can’t really be removed after the fact) sound decent, and uncountable hours later, voilà: a reasonably listenable version of this most psychedelic monstrosity, which represented the terminus of a certain direction in my songwriting that I will no doubt never retread.

    Why call it “Green Song?” It’s because of the bridge section, which enters totally different sonic territory from the rest of the tune, and represents the emergence from mere dreamy drifting (the rest of the song) into a promised land of faux native noble savagery, complete with one’s “keen green soulio.” It should be evident that my opinion of such nature worship was and remains fairly low. Sorry, forest sprites and wood nymphs and swamp things! Making love on a bed of bug-infested leaves is grody!

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  19. Interested in a 2015 PEL Calendar?


    Hey, folks,

    We are considering doing a 2015 PEL Calendar for the upcoming holiday season. It would be wall-mount, spiral or folded 24 page, 12 month calendar with PEL-style images (like this and this and this), fun quotes, significant dates, etc.  In other words, a kick-ass gift for yourself or loved ones. We are going to try this the old fashioned way, aka get a bunch made and ship them ourselves vs. just-in-time fulfillment through a service.  That lowers the cost to you but means money up front from us.

    We figure the price to be in the neighborhood of $20 + shipping and handling ($5 US & CA, $10 International).  May vary slightly based on demand but that’s going to be the ball park.

    So we need to know before we commit that enough people are interested and would buy it.  We figure the minimum number of takers to be 100. If you are definitely or maybe interested, please take the following survey.  It’s short – just three questions. If you are not at all interested, no need to respond.

    PEL 2015 Calendar Survey


    -The PEL Guys