Apr 152014

Henri Bergson postage stamp

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

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

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

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Apr 082014

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

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

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

Apr 072014

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

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

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Apr 042014

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

I quote:

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

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Apr 032014


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

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

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

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Mar 282014

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

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

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Mar 212014

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

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Mar 172014

PEL Not SchoolLast weekend the Philosophy and Theater Group had our monthly discussion, and this time Phillip Cherny and myself talked about Tom Stoppard‘s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a tremendously clever, meta-fictional play which fills offstage moments of Hamlet with absurdist hi-jinks.  For the philosophically inclined, this play has fireworks from beginning to end, and Stoppard covers a lot of ground in between:  the meaning of chance, free will and determinism, identity, madness, truth and much more.  As with the group’s other recorded discussions, you can find it on the Free Stuff for Citizens page as soon as you join up to become a PEL Citizen.

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Mar 112014

belly dancingNovelist Randa Jarrar has been mocked – and accused of racism – for telling the world that she “can’t stand” white belly dancers. As Eugene Volokh notes, if we were to universalize Jarrar’s objections to “cultural appropriation,” then we might object to East Asian cellists or Japanese productions of Shakespeare, rather than treating the arts as they ought to be treated: as the “common stock of humanity, available for all humanity to use, rather than the exclusive property of some particular race or ethnic group.”

Are such rebuttals entirely fair? After all, there is such a thing as cross-cultural mockery or unintentional caricature. And Jarrar is claiming that the belly dancing of white women is a form of racism and cultural degradation that causes her and other Arab women direct emotional harm. It is something that happens “on Arab women’s backs.” How is it racist and degrading? For wearing traditional costumes and certain kinds of makeup, Jarrar accuses white belly dancers of dressing up in “Arab drag” and appearing with a “brownface Orientalist façade.” She otherwise criticizes the appearance of white dancers (one dancer was too thin for Jarrar’s liking) and the use of made-up names.

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Mar 102014

As I read the whole of Intention for our Anscombe episode and didn’t want to promptly forget the whole thing, I ran a small Not School group last month that just had its discussion this last weekend; you can hear it on the Free Stuff for Citizens page (provided that you go become a Citizen, of course).

I was joined by Stanley Martin and Shira Coffee. All of us had some trouble with the overall drift of the book: every page has some bit of interesting analysis, e.g. what is the difference between an intention and a prediction? Between an intention and a command? Do Aristotelian practical syllogisms actually work according to modern logic? And you’ve already heard us talk on the PEL episode, I hope, about the guy pumping poison water. But what do all these individual insights add up to? She more often tries out a theory and then shows why it doesn’t work than puts forth anything positive, and the positive data doesn’t coalesce neatly into a theory. Nonetheless, it’s a fun read, and we had a good time going through it a bit, so if you liked the Anscombe episode and wanted to hear the other side of her story, I hope this bonus recording helps.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Mar 052014

In the Anscombe episode, Mark refers (about 20 minutes in) to language games to explain what’s behind Anscombe’s claim that “ought” has been abstracted from the contexts in which it has clear uses and imagined to have a sense independent of those contexts. Mark notes that although Anscombe doesn’t use the term “language game,” she studied closely with Wittgenstein, translated most of his work and wrote from a Wittgensteinian perspective. Mark felt it important to emphasize, however, that, despite her allusion to the idea, for Anscombe, discussing morality or particular moral issues “is not a game.  Or, as David Byrne might put it, “This ain’t no foolin’ around.”

One might wonder why Wittgenstein would choose to use the word “game” so much when talking about language. Why choose as your principal analogy something that is sure to elicit the accusation that you are trivializing what is as far from trivial as anything could be? After all, he took philosophy about as seriously as one can take it, I believe. Ironically, Russell, not really knowing whereof he spoke, said of Wittgenstein’s later work that it was the product of a man who had grown tired of serious thinking. He even suggested Wittgenstein had invented a doctrine in order to make serious thinking in philosophy unnecessary. So, was Wittgenstein just playing around? Did he just make up his own rules so he could play the game the way he wanted to? I’d say that’s barely plausible. He believed he had achieved an insight into how philosophers (but not only philosophers), including himself, were prone to being misled in the course of their investigations. He wanted, among other things, to try to reveal why this happens and to put up sign posts to warn of the dangers of confusion. He tried to do philosophy in a new way, showing how by example, just as one might explain what a game is by example rather than by definition.

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Mar 042014

Listen to Matt Teichman’s introduction to the reading.

Henri Bergson is an early 20th century French philosopher that PEL listeners may recall from our philosophy of humor episode, and we’ll be tackling his philosophy proper via the entrance drug “An Introduction to Metaphysics,” a short essay from 1903 (freely available online) that is essentially pheonomenology without the jargon (Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre are all in his debt, as is on other grounds Whitehead’sprocess philosophy“). Deleuze explicitly identified him as a key influence.

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Mar 032014

PEL Not SchoolFor March I’m proposing a Not School reading group on Zizek. The group will read a 25-page transcript of a talk he gave at the International Journal of Zizek Studies 2012 conference. It is, I think, a very nice summary of some of his key philosophical positions and where his current theoretical interests lie. The added advantage of this reading is that a recording of Zizek himself delivering it is available on YouTube and since Zizek is a primarily oratorical philosopher, this should provide great assistance in one’s reading. The talk itself is about 1h 30m and the text can be read much more quickly – in, perhaps, thirty minutes or, with care, an hour.

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Mar 022014

A fantastically accomplished writer and philosopher, Umberto Eco tends to write pieces that are layered and accessible. The common thread is epistemological in nature; he has written everything from treatises on the theory of semiotics to an exploration of the patterns of thought of a game show host. Unflinchingly- perhaps even harshly- realistic, Umberto’s works nonetheless retains a poetic beauty that is often evidenced by those whose passion is the truth.

In his book The Name of the Rose Eco explores in a novel format the use of semiotics – the device of using signals to represent underlying realities. His focus in the novel is on the misuse of power by one set of people. His protagonist, a benevolent Franciscan monk, seeks to promote education and knowledge by fighting the system of oppression that is held in place by neglect and corruption. Continue reading »

Feb 262014

[Even though for the podcast we read only the equivalent of three short papers by Anscombe, there was an awful lot of ground that we didn't cover, because Anscombe had so much to say about such a variety of topics. One thing we didn't cover was her dismissals of moral philosophers from Butler through Mill, which she presents very, very cursorily at the beginning of "Modern Moral Philosophy." Those dismissals are varying levels of fair and accurate, but they're worth understanding despite their haste. Also, they're hilariously rude and I just wanted to summarize them, so fuck you. Here we go.]

Butler’s all “Guys, don’t worry, we know what is right and what is wrong. We can argue all day about how or why something is wrong, but we all seem to get that things are, in fact, right and wrong, right? Maybe it’s enough that our conscience tells us so.” That sounds really nice, but people do awful shit all the time and then go, “Someone had to teach that six year old a harsh lesson. It was the right thing to do.” And we’re like, “Was it, though? Because that was pretty fucked up.” So conscience isn’t any good.

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Feb 192014

PEL Not SchoolAt the beginning of this month, Carlos Franke, Phillip C., and myself spoke about Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited on a Skype call.  The call will be posted on the Free Stuff for Citizens page, which you can access as soon as youjoin up to become a PEL citizen.  PEL tackled McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men back inepisode 63, so long time listeners will be familiar with some of the features of his work.

The Sunset Limited is billed as a “novel in dramatic form,” and we all felt that we missed much less by simply reading it than with the other plays we’ve read for our group.  As Phillip pointed out, it reads like a sort of twisted Socratic dialogue.  McCarthy gives us two characters, known only as “Black” and “White,” who proceed without compromise to make their respective cases for life and death.  When the play opens, White has just attempted suicide and Black has intervened.  White’s position remains settled on death over life, while Black believes in a “life everlasting,” which he is convinced White also desires at some core level. This begins a debate between Black and White about the merits of life and death, the relationship between reality and consensus, the connection and obligation people might have to each other, and a lot more.  McCarthy is the kind of writer whose lines you can pour over again and again and still find something new.  Much of our discussion consisted of trying to get a hold on his slippery language and wrestling with these big themes.  Of course, philosophical arguments for and against suicide came up, along with Camus and Schopenhauer, and we tried to get some understanding of what relationship they bear to actual suicides.  If none of that is too morbid for you, go check it out.

Also, while The Sunset Limited lends itself very well to being read, the HBO version with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson is definitely worth watching if you haven’t seen it.

- Daniel Cole

Feb 142014

Bill Nye and Ken HamEstimates suggest that over five million people have now watched the debate that was streamed live last week between CEO of the Planetary Society, Bill Nye “The Science Guy,” and president of Answers in Genesis, Ken Ham.

The debate benefited from a fairly concrete question—“Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”—although the conversation suffered at points from a lack of clarification about what made a model of origins viable. (Both Nye and Ham alternated between taking a model’s viability as dependent on whether one could successfully develop technology or otherwise be scientifically innovative while accepting the model and taking a model’s viability as dependent on whether or not the model accords with available observational data.)

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Feb 102014

In the Sartre episode, I made the point that Sartre thinks we have the freedom to adjust our point of view to understand other people, and that this amounts to a moral imperative for him: we deny our similarity to others on pain of bad faith.

This goes well with my aesthetic mantra: if you don’t “get” some kind of art, that’s due to your own failure to imaginatively put yourself in the mindset of the artist and/or his intended audience. While that’s not always a bad thing (if an artist is aiming at 13-year-old malcontents, and I’m not trying to understand my errant son or something, I have no reason to adopt that stance), limiting yourself by denying this capacity just ends up denying you enjoyment and blocking you from other people.

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Jan 312014

About half way through the BBC’s 1962 production of No Exit, I started rewriting it in my head. The reason? I got tired of watching the same four white-washed walls, the same three benches, and the same half-dozen paintings which make up the film’s only set. Yes, I know, it’s based on a play, but I wanted something more cinematic. I imagined the same three characters from Sartre’s play, but they wouldn’t be in Hell; they’d be in an office, forced to work all night to meet a deadline. This way, the film’s setting could at least have two or three rooms instead of just one. And they obviously wouldn’t be dead, so the monologues that detail what the characters are seeing of “life” would have to go. But… then I realized it wasn’t possible to change much about the story without changing the theme. The character-arcs require the characters to have no exit – Garcon’s attempt to isolate himself would actually be successful if he could take bathroom breaks; Estelle wouldn’t be so needy if she could find a mirror, etc. So I gave up trying to make this play more “filmic.”

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Jan 282014

Both Sartre and Anscombe say that they’re teasing out the logical consequences of atheism for ethics, and of course we saw this back in Nietzsche too. If you ask “are these figures moral realists or moral irrealists?”, I think they’re going to say you’re missing the point. No, a sentence like “X is right” no longer becomes simply true or false, and this is because of some sort of conceptual mistake contained in the term “right” as it is usually uttered in moral circumstances, so that sure sounds like moral irrealism, e.g. emotivism, which says that such a declaration merely means “I approve” or a cultural relativist who would grant a truth value to the claim only when it is uttered in a particular cultural context and heard/judged by members of that same culture.

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