Jan 042014

Back in the Foucault episode, the PEL gentlemen and guest Katie McIntyre explored the concept of the panopticon. Their discussion stuck pretty closely to Foucault’s text, and current day surveillance only came up briefly, but we heard plenty about it throughout the rest of 2013.  There’s the ongoing NSA saga, the encroaching “internet of things”(for your panopticondo?), new smart apparel for formerly private parts, free panopticondoms (a Trojan horse? Ok, I’ll stop).   It seems like a good time to think back to this part of Foucault’s work, and David Lyon and Zygmunt Bauman have done just that in a recently published correspondence.  A large part of their conversation is specifically devoted to looking for panopticism in the current surveillance landscape.

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Dec 072013

On John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), most of ch. 1-4.

What makes for a just society? Rawls gives us a thought experiment: Imagine you don’t know whether you’re rich or poor or any of the other specifics of your situation (he calls this going behind “the veil of ignorance” into the “original position”). Now what principles would you pick to determine basic social institutions? Would you choose a caste society where you might be born an untouchable and be screwed? Rawls thinks that in this position you would instead support his basic rules of justice, which are (in short) to make sure everyone has basic liberties, and, more controversially, to allow only such inequalities as bring up the fortunes of those least well off. So you can allow super riches so long as doing so means that the poorest will be less poor than with any other arrangement; the default position is everyone getting an equal share of society’s wealth unless you can demonstrate that letting some have more will benefit all.

This theory has been massively influential, and you can easily read it into Obama’s speeches. Even many defenders of free-market capitalism do so on basically Rawlsian grounds. The founding fathers (Mark, Seth and Wes) and an especially energetic Dylan debate whether this original position is really coherent and whether it yields the principles that Rawls wants it to.

Read more about the topic and get the text, then listen to Seth’s introduction.

End song: “Yours to Keep,” by Mark Lint & the Madison Lint Ensemble, featuring Bob Linsenmayer. Read about it.

Please support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen or making a donation. Remember please to do any holiday shopping at Amazon you may do through PEL’s Amazon link in the right margin of partiallyexaminedlife.com.

Nov 102013

Listen now to Seth’s Precognition for this episode.

On the evening of 11/10, we’re discussing John Rawls. What is justice? Rawls interpreted this question as asking what basic social rules and structures would result in a society that we’d consider fair. Justice is fairness, on a social level.

Fairness, of course, is an intuitive notion, and begs for a philosophical definition, but instead of doing some sort of old fashioned search for a definition (as in Plato’s Republic) which we can then use to deductively ground this general social framework, he wants to translate our intuitions straight into these social rules. Rawls came up the the name “reflective equilibrium” to talk about the considered opinion we reach on something when we carefully evaluate and make consistent our current set of beliefs.

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Nov 102013

Seth Paskin summarizes the John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. The full PEL episode on this book will be released in a few weeks.

Read more about the topic at partiallyexaminedlife.com. A transcript is available on our Citizen site’s Free Stuff page.

Oct 232013

I and four Citizens took a first crack at discussing The Year of Dreaming Dangerously yesterday (read more about our Not School group here).

Since Freud and Jung, psychotherapy has been used to try to make sense of group behavior, and Lacan himself applied his insights to the political realm (among other places). Zizek follows in that tradition, doing a Marxist analysis of the various events of 2011 using Lacanian language: Capital is, according to Zizek, the “real” behind all of these various conflicts that seem to be between individual groups. Capitalism is never itself confronted as a system, but serves as the underlying force and the principle by which this force itself is made invisible to us.

Sound kooky? Well, yeah. Become a citizen, go to the Free Stuff page, and download the discussion. If you’ve already read the book or can read it quickly, you may still have time to join the group; there may be a second discussion scheduled, since some of the key group players couldn’t make it this time.

-Mark Linsenmayer

May 262013

8_2Andrew Sullivan has accused Glenn Greenwald of “justifying” terrorism for a post that is largely about the inconsistent use of the word “terrorism.” Greenwald’s response is a thorough and decisive debunking of Sullivan’s accusations, but I wanted add something as a follow-up to my discussion of Sullivan’s incoherence on these issues.  In this latest piece, he doubles down on the completely irrational notion that such incidents as the killing of a soldier in London are “terrorism in its most animal-like form, created and sustained entirely by religious fanaticism which would find any excuse to murder, destroy and oppress Muslims and non-Muslims in the name of God.” That’s my emphasis on the entirely by religious fanaticism clause, because I think it’s telling that Sullivan feels compelled to make such an unworkable generalization, despite hinting in the past that he is aware of the idea that any such act must the result of multiple causal factors working together.

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Apr 262013

Tamerlan-Tsarnaev-1842056Since it became known that the Boston Marathon bombing suspects are Muslims, there has been a predictable celebration by a chorus of right-wing commentators for whom the evil of Islam and the collective guilt of Muslims in such cases are tenets of faith.

More subtle but equally pernicious are the reactions of blogger Andrew Sullivan and political entertainer Bill Maher. While they say they reject Islamophobia and routinely acknowledge that the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are not violent extremists, Sullivan and Maher believe that the left’s defense of Islam from right-wing attacks is overzealous and devolves into “liberal bullshit” at the point where it attempts to deny a) that “jihad” is the primary motivation of the Marathon bombings, and is generally a serious threat; and b) that Islam has certain features that make its religious extremists more violent and dangerous than those of other religions, such as Christianity and Buddhism. These views, they say, are motivated by a dedication to the truth, even when such truth is unpalatable and doesn’t fit well with the bleeding hearts and fuzzy heads of liberals.

While I’m generally a fan of Sullivan and Maher, these positions, far from representing a kind of fearless rationality, are really solid examples of the bullshit they think they stand against. In fact, they’re spectacular attempts to pawn off primitive free association and fuzzy thinking as truth-seeking.

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Jan 162013

On 1/13 we recorded a discussion of an early work of Karl Marx, from about 20 years before the publication of his famous Das Capital, The German Ideology. Listen to the episode. We read just part 1 of the work, which was written in 1845-6 but not published until 1932 (with some portions of it coming out earlier in the 20th century). The work is credited to Marx and Engels, but according to the editor of the version I read, it’s pretty clear that the part we read was Marx’s work.

The book is more philosophical than his later work, though its substance is in part an attack on philosophy, in particular that of the Young Hegelians like Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner. As you might recall from our Hegel on history episode, Hegel saw history as progressive, and analyzable in terms of “Spirit,” as in the spirit or intellectual climate of the times: you can (maybe) predict what will come next historically (e.g. will this democracy become a tyranny?) by looking at the big ideas driving the times. One idea somehow leads to the next one in a “dialectical” manner, e.g. a reaction against the current state of things, in turn supplanted by a synthesis which is more like the original position but changed to incorporate some of the advances to the second position. To use a musical example, 70s prog rock leads to the punk reaction, which turns into new wave/post-punk, which is artsy like prog but keeps some of the energy and simplicity of punk.

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Nov 072012

electoral collegeIt’s morning in America, as it is every morning, and despite the glow many of us are feeling due to the outcome of yesterday’s elections, the systemic problems, many of which were recognized by the authors of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, remain. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of focusing solely on trying to stimulate the economy and balance our budget, some immediate legislative attention was given to reflecting on and cleaning up the political system itself? Let me throw out a few issues for us to discuss here that were raised or alluded to on our podcast episode:

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Nov 062012

South ParkPer Wes’s election post, not voting because you don’t like the available options fails to grasp the reality of our situation. There are plenty of principled rationales for ruling out both candidates, and you may think that not voting, or voting for a third-party candidate, will send some kind of message that the system is too flawed for you to dirty your hands with. There are plenty of online versions of this, though since one of our listeners sent me one from Aladsair MacIntyre from eight years ago, I’ll refer you to that as one example.

The ethical tussle here is as old as principled Kantianism vs. calculating utilitarianism, where followers of the latter ridicule the former for their naïveté and/or their stubbornness. Certainly in our episode about the American founding I was in despair about a system that seems to have failed to live up to Madison’s hope to reign in factionalism.

To balance my attitude there, I feel the need to point out that today’s political parties are not factions, but are already coalitions between factions. Continue reading »

Nov 052012

Every once in a while, a listener of The Partially Examined Life complains that that our liberal political proclivities — and occasional outright partisanship — are not consistent with our being philosophical, which should make us more neutral about such matters.

I disagree.

I do agree – after listening recently to the first few PEL episodes – that in the wrong context, political opinions are neither entertaining nor pretty. Absent a context of justification or an audience that feels precisely the same way, they will seem  irrational and ugly, merely brute expression of preference. If good reasons led to these opinions, these reasons are lost in the expression of the result. We might say this even about political opinions with which we agree, for example when expressed as slogans on signs at a political protest.

We could broaden this conclusion to opinions in general: “opinions are like assholes,” the saying goes. We all have them, but having does not entail showing. Opinions are, in a sense, indecent, when they concern anything more controversial than the weather. People refrain from talking about them in the polite company of strangers in the same way they avoid getting naked, barring certain dis-inhibiting rituals. We are told not to talk about religion and politics with people we don’t know well. This means, ironically: don’t get too personal. Such opinions are in one sense about the most public of things; in another, they simply reveal too much.

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Nov 022012

As part of the run-up to our Federalist Papers episode, I listened to this interview on the Paul Revere Radio podcast interviewing Mary E. Webster, who published a couple of volumes of The Federalist Papers in “modern English.”

I can think of few texts with which this podcast is in contact which is less in need of a “modern” translation. On her web page, she provides an example of her changes:

The original text: AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.

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Oct 272012
James Madison and Alexander Hamilton

On Alexander Hamilton/James Madison’s Federalist Papers (1, 10-12, 14-17, 39, 47-51), published as newspaper editorials 1787-8, plus Letters III and IV from Brutus, an Anti-Federalist.

What constitutes good government? These founding fathers argued that the proposed Constitution, with its newly centralized–yet also separated-by-branch–powers would be a significant improvement on the Articles of Confederation, which had left states as the ultimate sovereigns.

Hear Dylan, Mark, and Seth here rap about factions: Does our current system prevent the abuse of power by interest groups in the way Madison predicted it would? (Hint: no.) If we want to argue for change, we have to diagnose what went wrong in this and other instances: is it that Madison’s/Hamilton’s predictions were simply wrong in some areas, or have the contextual facts (e.g. education and technology levels) changed the situation, and/or do we simply have different central concerns now than we did then? For instance, their fresh-from-the-revolution audience was worried about kingly tyranny, and European powers were skeptical of any democracy, while we face new challenges like the rise of corporations that apparently have personhood according to our Supreme Court. Learn more about the topic and get the readings.

End song: “Feeling Time” by Madison Lint (2002).

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Sep 262012

The Federalist Papers (originally published as just The Federalist) are a collection of essays published in newspapers in 1787-1788 arguing for the ratification of the American Constitution. Each was published under the pseudonym “Publius” though most were written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. (There are a few written by John Jay.) They were collected and published in groups during the ratification of the Constitution and then published as a group following ratification. They are among the most important documents articulating the political philosophy underlying the American Constitution itself.

The essays are widely available in many forms and have been published by many presses. You can get a free version from Project Gutenburg. The Wikipedia entry for the Federalist Papers contains extensive links and structure to the papers and cross-references to each of the essays.
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Sep 252012

One of the comments on Mark Satta’s recent very hot post about universal salvation has been zooming ’round my brain, and demands, I think, a PEL episode at some point. A comment by our listener Bear stated:

My questions about Atheists wanting to redefine orthodoxies of particular belief systems, be it Christian, Buddhist, Mormon, Islam &c., demanding those within the belief system to accept certain propositions internal the belief system. For example, telling very conservative Evangelical Christians or Buddhists that they must accept and not condemn sodomy, and they must accept what greater society thinks about these things.

This is not an abstract concern, I have seen this regularly.

When does the internal beliefs of a group become public debate? How much can a society demand that a religious group abandon its beliefs and conform to the rest of society?

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Sep 052012

On Candide: or, Optimism, the novel by Voltaire (1759).

Is life good? Popular Enlightenment philosopher Leibniz argued that it’s good by definition. God is perfectly good and all-powerful, so whatever he created must have been as good as it can be; we live in the best of all possible worlds.

Voltaire loads this satirical adventure story up with horrific violence to demonstrate that Leibniz’s position is just silly. Life is filled with suffering, and human nature is such that even in peace and prosperity, we’re basically miserable. Yet we still love life despite this. Voltaire’s solution is to “tend your garden,” which means something like engaging in meaningful work, whether personal or political.

This is a very special episode for us, as it’s our first with all of us recording in the same room, as part of a weekend of fun and frolic in Madison, WI. Read more about the topic and get the book.

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

Please check out the transcriptions for this and other episodes, and support us through your donations, at partiallyexaminedlife.com/shopdonate.

Aug 222012

Following the path of reading novels (which we don’t necessarily intend to make a habit of) begun with #62, we have now recorded our discussion of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. We had as a guest one of Dylan’s teachers from undergrad, Eric Petrie, Professor at James Madison College at Michigan State University, who has been presenting a paper called “Promise Keeping After the Death of God” about this book. Listen to the episode.

We primarily discussed the philosophies as represented by the various characters, specifically the contrast between the WWII generation (Sheriff Bell, who provides interstitial first-person commentary throughout the book, though he’s hardly involved in the action at all) and the Viet Nam Vets (both the protagonist Moss, who was a sniper but now displays a respect for life even with regard to criminals and the villain Chigurh, who sees himself as an agent of destiny and does not tolerate his enemies to live). Is the book, as Bell’s commentary suggests, just a complaint against the lack of morality among the young generation, which, through their appetite for drugs, enables the novel’s violent conflicts? The Viet Nam vets, though, display self-created principles instead of traditional religious ones, and we drew points of comparison (some of which McCarthy was surely aware of) to Nietzsche, Kant and Sartre.

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Jul 312012

We built this city...In this Washington Post editorial on Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog by Dylan Matthews, we get an attempt to connect philosophy to current political discourse, with the conclusion “…which is perhaps why, in general, politicians don’t spend a lot of time listening to philosophers.”

The issue is desert, as in “do rich people deserve to keep their money?” Matthews characterizes the majority opinion among philosophers on this issue as being that some kind of determinism, whether hard or soft, is true, so the notion of “desert” doesn’t make sense, and thus philosophy is so divorced from common sense, i.e. the terms in which ordinary people couch their arguments, that we can presumably just ignore philosophers altogether.

Very relevant to Chapter 17 of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, “Justice as a Virtue: Changing Conceptions,” Matthews brings up both John Rawls and Robert Nozick, who, as MacIntyre also points out, have opposite views about the directives of social justice but neither of which couches their argument in terms of desert. MacIntyre states (p. 249-250):
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Jul 242012

Given how helpful Steven B. Smith (of Yale) was on the Republic, I had to check him out this time around for Aristotle’s Politics.

Watch the first Aristotle lecture on YouTube.
Get the audio from iTunes.

In Smith’s three lectures, you can learn:
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Jul 222012

On Aristotle’s Politics (350 BCE), books 1 (ch 1-2), 3, 4 (ch 1-3), 5 (ch 1-2), 6 (ch 1-6), and 7 (ch. 1-3, 13-15).

Aristotle provides both a taxonomy of the types of government, based on observations of numerous constitutions of the states of his time, and prescriptions on how to best order a state. These are meant to be practical; though he does spend some time on the “ideal” government, he recognizes that that’s going to be very rare, given that it requires those in charge to be virtuous according to his stringent standards. He provides advice for all the types, whether rule by one, or the few, or the many, to help keep them stable and from drifting into their corrupt forms. He sees the state as a natural outgrowth of human nature, and that one can characterize the health of a state in much the way one can describe the health (i.e. virtue, happiness) of an individual. Yes, he’s a major league elitist, but there’s still some good stuff here, applicable even to modern times. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: “Don’t Forget Where You Are,” from the Mark Linsenmayer album Spanish Armada, Songs of Love and Related Neuroses (1993), newly remixed/remastered.

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