Your Obsession with Sophists Is Juvenile Sophistry! Research Time, 31/07/2013

After working on post-doc proposals, going back over my fiction work, and a series of happy developments in my personal life, I’m back into research for my utopias project. This means, for the moment, more of Hegel’s Philosophy of History. One idea at the close of his chapter on ancient Greece caught hold of me, which was his account of the Sophists.

These were the people who, in ancient Greek terms, were teachers of rhetoric. If I were to update this into the parlance of our times, I suppose they’d be debate teachers, speaking coaches, or maybe law school teachers. It’s a stretch to put a profession that developed in the cultural industry of ancient Greece in contemporary terms. But basically, a Sophist was someone whose job it was to prepare people to speak in the constituent assemblies of Greek city-states, or speak themselves on behalf of clients. The assemblies operated by debates leading to consensus on practical political decisions, and Sophistry was the art of speaking in ways that could dominate these debates. The nature of the advocated cause was immaterial to the techniques of convincing people to follow it.

As far as Hegel’s concept of world-spirit developing historically goes, the Sophists were the conduit for world-spirit to become conscious of thought’s worldly power. After all, if man is the measure of all things, as Protagoras said, then even the weakest version of this idea, that humanity has the potential to investigate and understand everything in the universe, suggests that we have an incredible power. Socrates was progress over this way of thinking, says Hegel, because he used the rhetorical tools of the Sophists — intense and fleet-footed critical argumentation — to seek a universal truth. Sophists themselves were content with being able to convince anyone of anything. This, after all, was the point of their art: being able to convince the city-states’ assemblies to go along with you. This is reason’s power directed toward the relative, when it should be directed toward the universal. 

All’s well for Socrates and Hegel. They’re dead, and so have more important priorities (or the luxury of having no priorities at all!). Yet if I have one beef with this idea so far, it isn’t a particularly deep philosophical one, but a beef as a contemporary philosopher working in a university setting. One of the major pieces of Socratic rhetoric students encounter when they first learn about ancient Greek philosophy is his opposition to Sophistry. He extols the universal over the relative, the enlightenment of truth over manipulation to convince. It’s very inspiring, and it does indeed inspire many students to condemn relativism and Sophistry, seeking instead the universal through pure thought.

If my language got a little pretentious explaining that point of view, then that was some of my rhetoric. See, one of the problems contemporary philosophy faces as an academic discipline is that there are so few women in it. It’s just us and the economists who still have a majority of male majors, graduate students, professors, and significant authorities in all the humanities and social science disciplines. What’s more, philosophy has become very isolated as a discipline, with few professionals in other disciplines interested in philosophical input in their concerns, or even conceiving of common problems in terms similar enough to have a productive conversation. And one of the many reasons why I think this is, is that a noticeably prevalent tendency of young, impressionable students when they first get into philosophy is go full anorak* on it. And many of those never recover.

* Anorak: a geek, usually male, whose obsession with his chosen subject matter often expresses itself in impressive feats of memorization of facts or the ability to manipulate debates, which are often displayed in public to assert dominance in the geek community and establish a twisted moral superiority over those who are inferior in this regard. 

Anoraks tend to create a climate very hostile to women, or indeed anyone who doesn’t find confrontational argument fun. To the degree that the anorak mode of thinking and conversation tends to dominate the culture of academic philosophy, it gives us a lot of problems, because confrontational argument has the practical effect of shutting down productive conversation and quiet careful thinking, in favour of sharp retorts and acidic critique. Insofar as we’re the only academic discipline that teaches its undergraduates to speak this way, philosophy has become largely shunned in most interdisciplinary conversation. It doesn’t help that our grown-up anoraks tend to consider other disciplines unworthy of conversation with philosophers because they do not speak with sufficient ‘rigor.’ Among good philosophers, rigor is precisely rigorousness. Among mediocre to bad philosophers, rigor is simply an excuse for dismissing a conversation partner because they aren’t talking to assert dominance, or they disagree with you and you want them to shut up.

This meme is the creation of a politically conservative
philosophical anorak. A politically liberal philosophical
anorak would call memes like this an example of modern
sophistry. They would both be wrong, because anoraks are
You can spot a philosophy anorak by seeing how much of Monty Python’s “Philosopher’s Song” they have memorized (hint: all of it), or whether they use the term “Sophist” as an insult. The irony is that most philosophical anoraks speak like stereotypical Sophists: they argue to win, and in winning, they belittle their opponent as the inferior philosopher. In second year, when serious students usually declare their majors, the most enthusiastic ones get involved in the department's student societies. If a high enough percentage of these are anoraks who, because he is the most romanticized hero in the history of philosophy, superficially take after Socrates, then anyone less aggressive in argument than history's greatest gadfly isn't fit to take part. And like a good anorak, if you can't meet their standard, you don't deserve to be here.

This is what upsets me about the contemporary use of the word Sophist: there isn’t one. The centuries-old rhetoric about the nature of philosophy is based on this confrontation between Socrates and Sophistry, the universal and relativism. So an anorak tends to believe that philosophical problems are universal, relevant to all times and places, and unaffected by change. But that’s simply not true. The priorities of philosophy have always been focussed on the problems of the time. Indeed, one of the positive aspects of Hegel’s account of ancient Greek thought in Philosophy of History is that he explains the Socrates-Sophistry conflict as a function of the political and social upheaval of the Greek peninsula at that historical epoch. It was a deeply unstable period for their society, their customary moralities under threat from foreign wars. The time cried out for someone to shore up their morals by grounding them in the universal instead of their contingent historical tradition. Or so Socrates may have thought. The ideas of the Socrates-Sophistry conflict can only apply indirectly to my modern world because those ideas were generated in an ancient world. And my world is incredibly different from the world of Socrates. This isn’t the cheap relativism that an anorak would accuse me of; I simply admit that different problems require different thinking to solve them.

Say a young person discovers philosophy and becomes an anorak about it, obsessing over cheap facts; technical terminology; talking to me about Kant’s theory of apperception when I’m 20 years old, at a house party, it’s 3.00am, and I’ve already had two bottles of wine; and going to war against ‘modern Sophistry’ in the name of ‘the universal.’ He isn’t doing anyone any favours, especially not himself. Philosophical progress doesn’t come from approaching closer to the final answers to the eternal questions of life, the universe, and everything. It comes from profound engagement with the contemporary world to figure out what life, the universe, and everything all means now.

Memories that Haunt and Linger, Composing, 30/07/2013

Of everything that My Son My Son What Have Ye Done suggests, one aspect on which I want to concentrate is how it depicts mental illness as a kind of haunting. Herzog never meant to depict what he called “clinical insanity,” giving an accurate picture of what medically goes wrong in a case of violently deranged mental illness. He wanted to create a kind of lyric poem of violent mental illness.

This post is the first in over three weeks about my fiction writing. For the moment, most of my projects in fiction are either with editors, under review, or still so nascent that I don’t have much to say. But Herzog’s film made me think about some of the themes in my novella that have become more obvious to me after I’ve gone back over the manuscript.

When it comes to my writing, I’m a meticulous planner. In terms of plot and character, all the points are very specifically assembled. And my novella, Under the Trees, Eaten, is the most tightly planned of them all. I wrote it in five months, the shortest time it has ever taken me to assemble a project of this size and detail. In its initial conception, and throughout writing, I had several key ideas in mind. First was its nature as a genre collision, or more accurately a genre explosion. This is another idea that I sourced from Phil Sandifer, that genre fiction best progresses not by executing genres, but by mashing them into each other and seeing what new narrative shapes emerge. His analysis of Rose, the first episode of the revived Doctor Who series, illustrates this technique in excruciating and fascinating detail.

Imagery related to ants is also very important for Under the
Trees, Eaten
. But this post isn't about ants.
Under the Trees, Eaten does this with the stories of H. P. Lovecraft. I was reading Lovecraft again for a philosophical essay I was working on in late Fall when the man who is now my editor contacted me to see if I had any novella-sized ideas. I read his email in the morning, and by the time I wrote back that afternoon, I had the entire book sketched out. It collides the structure and setting of a typical story in the style of Lovecraft with a middle-class intelligent female protagonist often created by Joss Whedon or Russell T. Davies. A Rose Tyler who lives in Boston, never met the Doctor, and became a property manager. She instead meets the mysterious man who takes her to a town that should not exist.

My central focus in designing the novella’s narrative and writing it in detail was the genre collision. The Lovecraft aesthetic is about our ordinary world being invaded and pressured by the totally alien, epic monstrosities that overwhelm the human. The story of Under the Trees, Eaten shows how the violence of this alien invasion is no match for the destructive force of humanity’s petty cruelties. Cthulhu’s power is abstract and empty compared to the visceral terror of domestic abuse or rape. 

Yet when I went back over my manuscript, another idea jumped out at me, which I hadn’t noticed before. I take this as a good sign, that a piece of writing contains so many interpretive possibilities that even its writer doesn’t see all of them at once. Under the Trees, Eaten also examines how we are haunted by our past: regrets, missed opportunities, personal tragedies, loss. The character whose actions are the catalyst for the main plot, the protagonist’s father, is haunted by the death of his wife to the point of mental instability. The protagonist herself is haunted by the death of her mother, and then the derangement and death of her father. This isn’t a spoiler: the first sentence of the first chapter describes her father’s funeral. This haunting transforms the world into a hostile place, filled with dangerous and destabilizing spaces. The protagonist’s legs collapse out from under her as she faints on entering her father’s apartment for the first time in years, which is paralleled at later, genuinely spoiler-constitutive, events. 

The traumas of her past weigh her down and halt her movement. And the arc of the novella is her regaining power over her past. Most stories about overcoming trauma I find quite unrealistic, because they tend to speak a language of getting rid of the past, leaving the tortuous parts of your history behind you. But one can’t leave the past behind this way. Your past isn’t like an article of clothing, but like a part of your body. Your past, your memory, makes you who you are. Her traumas are still heavy, and they are still with her, but she deals with those traumas in the way that I think most people do, or at least attempt to do, in real life. 

She grows strong enough to carry them.

Narratives Made From a Language of Images, Jamming, 29/07/2013

Yesterday afternoon, I read an essay by Martin Scorsese in the New York Review of Books, an essay more philosophically pregnant than most of the short works of many contemporary philosophers. It ended with another well-deserved and required plea from Martin to us to preserve every film that exists. The measurements of contemporary popularity don’t indicate what the truly noteworthy or historically relevant films really are. 

Martin Scorsese, starting his new career as a philosopher
of cinema.
The reasons why explore an idea that is becoming increasingly important to my long-term projects: memory’s ability to transform the present and affect the development of the future. Phil Sandifer’s work is, again, an important touchstone for me as well, dealing with the world-constitutive powers of memory through his framework more solidly based in cultural and media studies instead of straight philosophy. 

Scorsese takes the test case of Vertigo: a film that wasn’t very financially successful, that was dismissed as another crime thriller from a director well-known for catchy crime thrillers. Then over time, events conspire to pick up Vertigo for the work of genius it is: the French New Wave theorists latch onto Hitchcock and Vertigo as an auteur and his greatest masterpiece, bringing the analytical heft to pull it off. From there, priorities in sorting through the history of film radically change. A change in our memory transforms our current actions, and so changes how those in our future can remember us when we are their history.

At a different point, he discusses the nature of light in cinema, which strays too close to the worshipful attitude toward origins which I find suspicious. It’s one of the central ideas of my utopias project that romanticizing or carrying out daily life with the goal of recapturing the purity of a lost origin is a terrifyingly dangerous falsehood.

An equally profound idea in Scorsese’s essay is his discussion of what precisely cinema does, which he conceptualizes in terms of its language. It’s a narrative of images, assembled by cuts. A continuous flow of segments. Bergson wrote in 1907, in the last chapter of Creative Evolution, that cinema was an inferior media, a deceptive media, because it creates a false motion from still frames. Cinema for Bergson was another repetition of the flaws of Zeno’s paradoxes: understanding continuous motion for a succession of discrete still states. This is probably the most foolish thing Bergson thought, at least insofar as his idea had to do with what cinema achieved. Because in Matter and Memory, a book of 1896, Bergson conceived of events themselves in terms of images interacting with each other. And cinema truly is the interaction of images to assemble a continuous narrative experience. All of this rebuttal to Bergson’s dismissal of the cinema, and re-appropriating earlier elements of his philosophy for a more productive engagement with what cinema can do, you can find in Gilles Deleuze’s book Cinema I: The Movement-Image.

Cinema (and by this I include television, youtube video, and any other art where a camera films images, sound usual but optional, and assembles these images in a linear order) offers humanity radical powers to change how our narrative instincts and powers function, through the incredible flexibility of its simple construction. Assemble images in cuts. From this, we can define a whole new mode of history and memory (and possibly merge the two in a concept even more complex than what came before). And many other such modes after that. I don’t think we’ve even begun exploring the full depths of cinema’s potential to build new kinds of narrative, and I think a priority of philosophy of cinema should be creating the concepts by which we can interpret and create these narratives. 

Ode to the Unjustly Forgotten: Henri Bergson, A History Boy, 28/07/2013

I can write so much about Henri Bergson. This is a Sunday post, so I’m not going to write very much. And because I can write so much about Bergson, I’m going to concentrate on doing most of that in peer-reviewed journals of continental philosophy, because those are likely venues to publish writing about Bergson, and will continue bulking up my already impressive CV. 

Bergson, who in his day was
considered a contender in
philosophy for G.O.A.T.
Today, I simply want to say that Bergson should be remembered. And not only by Thomas Nagel. By anyone interested in a fascinating figure of the history of philosophy. He was dismissed as a mystic because of his concept of élan vital, a vital force that was the progressive energy of biological evolution, which was translated badly into English. Many people thought Bergson was actually talking about a mystical force, and his analysis of prophetic mysticism as religion’s progressive form in his last major book, Two Sources of Morality and Religion, didn’t help deny that. But if you look at how he developed the concept in Creative Evolution, his most popularly successful book, élan vital is conceived as simply the tendency to complexify, for the unicellular to become multicellular, for life to bifurcate into plants and animals, insects and mammals. I mean, it’s still a strange concept. But it isn’t a stupid concept, as his generally terrible reputation implies.

Gilles Deleuze’s book Bergsonism goes into the details of his philosophy, and the reasons for his eclipse much better than I can in a single post. This book was my first detailed exposure to Bergson’s ideas, having read it for the first time in, I think, 2005. While I didn’t fully see all their implications, I was fascinated. I only really got into Bergson seriously myself after my PhD supervisor did, devoting his winter semester graduate seminar in 2011 to examining all four of Bergson's major books.

But I think it’s important to understand Bergson as a philosopher with intriguing ideas, a man from whom we can learn much. He was both an easy and a difficult writer. Reading his books is a joy, each sentence a beautifully clear explanation of at times strange and difficult concepts. He would take concepts developed from one argument and bring them seamlessly to another. Time and Free Will, a book about the nature of time and the problem of determinism, developed a concept of time and duration that he used to help develop his theory of how a human personality forms through memory in Matter and Memory. The concept of élan vital was developed as part of his critique of conservative Darwinist theories of evolution in Creative Evolution. Then he applies it to an exploration into what constitutes human progress in Two Sources.

But he would write a new book with absolutely no recap of the last one, even though each new book pushed the conclusions of the previous book into new territories. I think Bergson made many mistakes and wrong turns. But even his mistakes contain much from which we can learn, seeing how and why he went wrong, but being able to rescue those ideas and apply them better today. Or seeing how issues which confuse us today can be clarified and progressed by seeing what Bergson had to say.

More than that, he was the first philosophical celebrity in the contemporary era of mass media. The first traffic jam in human history was caused by people rushing to reach a public lecture Bergson was giving in New York. If he were alive today, he’d be a youtube sensation and a top download on iTunes U. And just like in the heyday of his public popularity in the 1910s and 20s, no one would know what to make of him.

Creep on Creeping On: The Challenge of Daily Life, Research Time, 27/07/2013

One of the late chapters of Jean-Louis Dessalles’ Why We Talk discusses how language works in argumentation, and what we can learn about language’s origins from its argumentative function. This section should be gold mine for philosophical applications, because so much of philosophy of language over the last hundred years has been based on analyzing propositions as the building blocks of arguments.

And I was sadly disappointed for traditional philosophy once again. The problem is a matter of logical rigidity, or rather the rigidity of philosophical logic. Dessalles considers, as an example of the worldly phenomenon of arguing, a conflict over whether some proposition is true. That is, one person is arguing for proposition F, the other for proposition Not-F. A fairly simple matter of marshalling evidence of one over the other. Then he introduces a very strange (for philosophy) idea. If the question of F or Not-F isn’t actually interesting to the people having an argument, the truth of F becomes irrelevant. And as far as understanding that worldly situation, F and not-F wouldn’t have a truth value. They’d be neither true nor false nor meaningless. Just indifferent.

This way of thinking doesn’t quite jive with the logic we learn in introductory philosophy classes. When we learn logic, we’re taught clearly that every statement is either true or false or nonsense, and that logic is, in its practical application, about analyzing statements about the world to understand their precise truth value: the conditions by which the statement can be true. 

Graham Priest has become something of a philosophical hero
to me, because his inventions of multiple logical systems that
put aside typically intuitive logical rules made mathematical
logic more creative than it's ever been since Russell and
Whitehead. He should be remembered with Aristotle, Russell,
and Kripke as humanity's greatest logicians.
Alternatives to this black-and-white logical system were first seriously developed only in the late 20th century by Graham Priest. Of all the philosophers who practiced in the last hundred years, and who are still alive today, I probably stand most in awe of Priest. Priest first gained notoriety (some more philosophically conservative would say he became notorious) for developing what is called a paraconsistent logic. A symbolic logic whose rules allowed contradictory propositions (A and Not-A) to be true. It blatantly flies in the face of everything that was taken for granted, to be so obviously true that only a fool would question it. Logicians and mathematicians have worked on paraconsistent logics over the years, but Priest put the most effort into them. By demonstrating that you can build a logical system that was valid, workable, and practically valuable, that also stripped away all the intuitively basic rules of logic traditionally conceived, he opened up new possibilities for creativity in mathematical logic. These possibilities were not even considered before Priest’s popularization, were not even really thinkable by most people.

Symbolic logic isn’t my strong suit. I can teach it at the introductory level in a philosophy department if I have to, but the student evaluations won’t be the best, and all the computer science students taking the course for an easy mark will make fun of me the entire time. That’s why I stand in awe of Priest’s achievement. He introduced and popularized new directions in a field of philosophy where only one direction was ever conceived as even making sense at all.

These days, if a philosopher wants to do something absolutely weird with logic, he can just refer to Graham Priest as a precedent. Any peer reviewer who would otherwise stand up for the traditional logic of the law of non-contradiction, reductio ad absurdum, the law of the excluded middle, and modus ponens just has to drop his rage. ‘Well, if he’s appealing to Priest as a precedent, then I guess I can grant his dropping all these basic rules and inventing a bunch of different ones.’ That makes his achievement all the more impressive. Before Graham Priest became The Graham Priest, there was no Graham Priest to refer to!

How and Not What: Social Constructivism, Research Time, 26/07/2013

One more reflection that has come out of my engagement with the newest Thomas Nagel book as a serious piece of writing has to do with the reason why no one else takes it seriously. The article reviewing Mind and Cosmos that I linked a few posts ago made a point that Nagel seemed not to have read the critiques of orthodox Darwinism that come from inside evolutionary biology itself.

Now I’ve thought of something else that Nagel doesn’t seem to have read. This is more of a nitpick, but it’s a nitpick that’s very important to me, and which illustrates a point that I think is a serious problem for the whole discipline of philosophy. However, it doesn’t get the attention that I think it deserves. We don’t read enough of the right stuff.

The moment that sparked this idea in me was a few remarks of Nagel’s about the idea that scientific knowledge is socially constructed. Social construction, says Nagel, implies that a scientific truth can never be independent of human thought and judgment. Therefore, he says, if you adopt a social constructivist position of any kind, you must believe that scientific knowledge is inherently subjective, integrated so deeply with the human mind that no facts can exist independent of the mind, that there is no objective knowledge. Nagel is against such a philosophy.

And so am I, deservedly. However, calling such an attitude social constructivism is an enormous mistake. Actual sensible social constructivism is the principle that if we want to understand HOW people investigate and discover ACTUAL FACTS about the world, we have to understand the social practices and institutions THROUGH WHICH we carry out those investigations of the actual world. It implies nothing about the ontological status of the facts we discover in these investigations. The facts are part of the world, our investigations into some various facts we want to learn are part of the world, and we humans are part of the world, never separate from it. Humans are some of the bits of the world that build a systematic understanding of the world.

This isn’t a weird thing to say. It’s all over the works of such vilified social constructivists as Bruno Latour and Ian Hacking. It was Hacking’s book, The Social Construction of What? that first, to me at least, laid out in clear terms just what social constructivism actually is. When Nagel discusses social constructivism, he describes a conception of it that is nothing more than a cheap, hostile stereotype that insults a complex intellectual field. This concept is usually wiped away by the end of an introductory class. At least, it is in introductory sociology classes. 

Perhaps if as clear a statement of what social construction actually is had been published a few decades earlier than Hacking’s book (copyright 2002), more writers would have a positive attitude to the ideas that have come out of social constructivist theory. As it is, the field of philosophy is filled with negative misconceptions about what social constructivism is and what it can achieve. And these misconceptions prevent many people from learning a lot about the actual world we live in. I still encounter these stereotypes about social construction theories from many philosophers. While I have some suspicions about why the truth about social construction hasn't filtered to many communities within philosophy, I don't quite want to get into those here. I do, however, think it has to do with norms in philosophical communities about what is and isn't acceptable to read and research. If you work in a community of philosophers who believes these old stereotypes about social construction and never encounter a dissenting view, you'll believe that the old stereotype is what social construction actually is.

Is Mind Over Matter If Mind Is Matter?, A History Boy, 25/07/2013

A long time ago, in the last year of my undergrad and during my MA at Memorial (from about 2004 to 2007), I knew exactly what kind of philosophy I wanted to work in, what stimulated the most interesting ideas in me, and what could benefit most from those ideas. Philosophy of mind.

My friends might be surprised. But I wrote my MA thesis in philosophy of mind, considering one possible answer to the problem of materialism. This is the problem of whether the world is entirely material or if there is a second substance of mind. Aside from this one approach to materialism/dualism I was considering, all the various thought experiments and problems on the subject fascinated me. Yet there was an element of this sub-discipline of philosophy that would become very difficult for me. 

All those more minor thought experiments and problems had developed such vigorous debates that they became their own sub-disciplines of philosophy of mind (itself already a sub-discipline). Everyone in philosophy of mind operates in these sub-disciplines; it isn't that kind of specialization. But when I would meet other practitioners of philosophy of mind at guest lectures and conferences from around 2007 to 2009, they'd tell me that the ideas developed in one debate didn't apply to another. Yet I kept coming up with ideas for projects that would apply, say, an idea from the materialism-dualism debate around Donald Davidson's Swamp Man to the identity theory debate around Swamp Man.

In the case of the perspective I took in my MA thesis? I chose the most unforgiving example of the typical materialist point of view in the last decades of the debate: Paul and Patricia Churchland. What if this kind of strict materialism could still permit processes that create all the intentionality, subjectivity, and inner life that we think dualists need the mind substance to do? What if I could find a set of ideas that generated all the phenomena we call mind from plain old matter? I could conclude that the conflict of materialism and dualism wasn't necessary; we could be minds made of matter. I'd just need to find a set of ideas that I thought could generate all that from material and walk you though how that happened. And I thought I knew exactly the philosophy that could do that: phenomenology, particularly the ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception. That book gives you the tools to walk through how a complete human personality develops from the material stuff of an organic body. Phenomenology is the perfect non-reductive materialism.

Yes, it did start as something of a joke (Swamp-Man, Swamp Thing). Then
I realized that Alan Moore's Swamp Thing character dealt with issues of
identity and memory central to philosophy of mind. 
Even before I had any idea whether it was appropriate, I was genre-mashing in philosophy. And I still do. This post isn’t for getting into my takes on the divisions and categories of philosophical disciplines (spoiler: I don’t like most of them!). But my greatest philosophical successes in the last five years have come from these genre collisions. I apply traditionally continental thinkers to analytic problems, just as in my MA thesis, or yesterday when I wrote how Thomas Nagel could learn so much from Henri Bergson. And I apply analytic thinkers to typically continental problems: Ian Hacking has a lot to teach Bruno Latour and the Foucauldian philosophers of science. I’ve even gotten philosophical success and peer-reviewed publications from seeing what philosophy and literature could learn from each other. I have an essay under review at a critical theory journal, which I’ve also presented at the Canadian Philosophical Association, that makes heavy use of H. P. Lovecraft to understand an aspect of the interaction of mysticism and science. I published an essay in Cogency this summer that critiques the problem in analytic theory of knowledge on the rationality of peer disagreement by drawing ideas from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I had an idea to get back into philosophy of mind last year with an essay that explores different aspects of Donald Davidson’s swamp-man thought experiment, taking it in new directions thanks to engaging with the ideas from Alan Moore’s run on the Swamp Thing comics in the early 1980s. I haven't started on it yet, because there's so much material in philosophy of mind alone to constantly catch up on. I've spoken about the idea with my friend D, who does philosophy of mind. One day, if he's still amenable, we can actually get started writing that essay together.

When the Opposites Are False, the Middle Ground is Empty Space, Research Time, 24/07/2013

Being the first person since possibly Mrs Nagel to give Thomas Nagel the benefit of (so very many of) the doubts on his new book has had fascinating results already. I don’t think he’s anywhere near right, but in this case a ridiculous falsehood offers intriguing possibilities for thinking. 

Now that I’ve actually started reading Nagel’s book instead of just reading accounts of people disgusted with it, I have a much better sense of his thought process going into it. In other words, I think I see what it would look like if Nagel wrote a History Boy post about his own book. In many ways, he’s working from a conception of philosophy that no longer holds, at least from my point of view. But this conception is actually remarkably popular, because most of the philosophical work that has taken this down has gone largely unnoticed by the general population of North America (at least, but I’d say of Earth if I had easy access to those kinds of surveys), and unnoticed in pretty large pluralities of the philosophical community as well. 

First, as far as Nagel is concerned, Mind and Cosmos isn’t a book about evolutionary theory or philosophy of biology, but about philosophy of mind. It’s an extension of the same line of thought that produced “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” For Nagel, the mind — our experiences of pains and pleasures, our consciousness and non-propositional thinking — cannot be reduced to physical phenomena without losing content. There is content to thought that is non-reducible to movements of matter, and we experience it intuitively.* And since evolutionary biology is all about the movements of organic matter as it changes through the dynamics of its ecological relationships, this scientific discipline is hit with the same critique as all the others: reductivism.

* Yeah, you can probably see where I’m going with this.

His goal is to find a middle ground between the kind of thinking that makes mind the foundation of material, and the kind that reduces the mind to the material. In this specific regard, the two perspectives that he called theism and materialism are close to opposites. And he thinks philosophy hasn’t really come up with a middle ground. I have two problems with this.

There are few in the history of philosophy who
fascinate and frustrate me more than Henri Bergson.
Problem number one is that Nagel isn’t doing new work on this problem. Henri Bergson theorized this opposition in depth, developed a detailed middle ground that constituted a metaphysical philosophy more comprehensive than that of damn near every philosopher that has tackled this before or since his career, and he did it all more than 100 years ago! Bergson was especially advanced in building a detailed account of how consciousness worked, which was the entire point of his greatest book, Matter and Memory. All Nagel can do, meanwhile, is appeal to the “obvious” appearance of consciousness in experience. But consciousness is still a simple entity to him. If Nagel were to take Matter and Memory as seriously as I’m taking Mind and Cosmos right now, he’d find more than an interesting book. He’d find an intellectual predecessor who has already surpassed him in many important ways!

What prevents this is that Bergson’s reputation collapsed after his fights with Einstein in the 1920s and once Bertrand Russell was convinced that Bergson was an obscurantist, mystic-minded twat (never mind that Russell’s technical work was so dense as to be his most difficult material and Bergson wrote so clearly that he was a pop-philosophical superstar decades before Russell became one). So no one ever read him again except Gilles Deleuze and the people who followed him. And no one in analytic philosophy ever reads Gilles Deleuze. So Nagel would not be expected to have read Bergson. I was impressed to find a Bergson footnote, though that’s the only mention of him in the book, and I doubt Nagel has read his works in any detail. The footnote offers a very over-simplified account of his concept of vital force.

My problem with Nagel number two. Ultimately, I think Nagel’s project in this book is misdirected because he takes the subject matter of materialism to be divided into an opposition that’s false. His goal is to find a middle ground where there is no between to discover. Nagel still believes, along with popular culture, that mind and matter are incompatible, and that science functions by reducing phenomena to the movements of matter. I think the ontology of the future isn’t just a non-reductive materialism, but an emergent materialism, where the structures and movements of matter at a micro-level constitute wholly new entities with wholly new laws of behaviour at its progressive macro-levels. 

That doesn’t fit Nagel’s narrative of two opposing camps through which one must find a middle ground or productive compromise. But I’m not interested in fitting into his or anyone else’s narratives. I want to make my own.

The Best Mistakes to Learn From Are Those of Others, Jamming, 23/07/2013

There’ll be more fights with Hegel in the future. Today, I’m working on a proposal for a post-doctoral grant that I discovered this week, adapting some aspects of my ecophilosophy project to a perspective more purely of philosophy of biology. Writing about it here isn’t going to get into the details of the project, but I do want to explain how I became interested in this issue and why I think it’s important.

Last year, Thomas Nagel wrote what was probably the shittiest book of his career, Mind and Cosmos. It’s a critique of orthodox evolutionary theory on the grounds that the slow, gradual pace of evolution by natural selection couldn’t have accounted for all the radical changes of species in the relatively short amount of time animal, plant, and fungoid life has existed on Earth. Taking this at face value, he has a point. Natural selection is such a slow and dicey process that it can’t work for major changes. Not only that, but species change is often the result of environmental changes, which can happen remarkably quickly. But natural selection is a slow process of incremental change over many generations. If an ecological niche disappears or radically changes in a generation or two, the pace of natural selection can’t keep up with that kind of change. Instead of a species transforming through the pressure of ecological niche changes, it becomes extinct. So there has to be another method of evolutionary development.

While I don't always admire Nagel's work, I
do admire his hair.
Fine and dandy. Then Nagel screws everything up, including what chance he might have had for a successful career in his old age. Because he says the only alternative to the orthodox Darwinian point of view is a creationist perspective, or at least a weird kind of teleology where mind or some mind-like force directs the evolution of life. This man is a living legend in philosophy, and this is where he ends up? A lot of the, shall we say, informally written reviews of the book I read online in the months after its release dismissed and insulted Nagel: I’ve read words like senile, ridiculous, moronic, wasteful, and downright dangerous. He writes in a country, the United States of America, where a significant number of politicians are actively working to destroy all science education in the name of their dogmatic and oppressive religion, the Biblical literalism of aggressive evangelical Christianity. Frankly, it’s impossible to write anything publicly about evolution in the United States and avoid politics. Closed-minded evangelical Christians are setting up conditions where, in a generation or two, there will be no more young scientists coming from huge swaths of the United States, simply because there will be millions of people for whom their only science textbook was the Bible.

One idea this research project would involve is giving Nagel the benefit of the doubt, while at least acknowledging the disastrous effects of a philosopher of his stature giving his weight to the political programs of Christian authoritarians who want to create an American population of dutiful sheep who submit themselves completely to their control and their religious dogma. Because there’s a growing literature of evolutionary scientists who critique orthodox Darwinism and the principle of gradualism in species development from within the science itself. Christian de Duve, Harold Morowitz, Robert Hazen, and Simon Conway Morris all write scientifically rigorous work that provides a detailed theoretical framework for there being some kind of directionality or converging set of tendencies in biological evolution, while keeping anti-scientific creationists in the backwoods where they belong. And a lot of this work was anticipated by Stephen Jay Gould. A great review of Mind and Cosmos is here, and the author calls out Nagel better than I can for now.

That’s how I became interested in the subject: wondering how someone like Nagel, whose work from the 1970s I admire so much,* could have fallen so far from the pinnacle of his thought. There would be two pillars to this project: examining the actual alternatives to orthodox Darwinism within respectable evolutionary biology, and examining why Nagel (and quite possibly a substantial mainstream in evolutionary biology itself) ignores this alternative work, and acts as if one either accepts a too-rigid dogma of evolution by gradual natural selection or escapes science altogether. It would combine my skills in philosophy of science with what I’ve learned from social science about examining intellectual influences, heritages, and citation networks.

* Sometimes, I think everything but the computer technology was better in the 1970s. This was the prime of American cinema, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, gay culture exploding into the open, punk, funk, disco, and the very first house music coming out of Detroit. Then I remember this was the decade of Derrida’s worst books, and I realize that nothing is ever perfect. Also, it’s just more of the too-easy romanticism of the past: I was born in 1983, so I don’t have to remember the shitty parts of the 1970s if I don’t feel like it.

The goal is using Nagel as a case of a larger tendency to polarize debates about evolution, diagnosing why this polarization exists, how it creates its most destructive effects on the disciplines of evolutionary biology and the philosophy thereof, and figuring out solutions and paths out of the morass.

We Escape Nature at Our Own Peril Because Nature Is Our Home, Research Time, 22/07/2013

Philosophy as a discipline has always existed in the shadow of Greece. No matter how hard some of us (not many) have tried to make a new start, or at least to leave this shadow in the past, the ancient Greek heritage is inescapable.

A contemporary interpretation
of the Greek god Hermes.
I consider myself a rarity that I don’t think ancient Greece is all that. Yes, it was remarkable. But contemporary humanity is so far from the cultural, historical, and physical problems that faced Periclean Greece that the well of inspiration is simply dry. Philosophy is the only discipline left in the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences that still embraces a significant portion of its Greek heritage. I know people who legitimately believe that the works of Aristotle contain all the important answers about the nature of the universe. Yes, the Aristotle of the geocentric cosmology, teleological biology, and separating the world into those suited to be citizens and those suited to be slaves. Aristotle. You aren’t about to find an Aristotelian physicist employed at a research university.

I say this because I’ve started the chapter of Hegel’s Philosophy of History where he explores the Greek national spirit from the period of the city-states through its subsumption in the Roman Empire. And once again, Hegel is fascinating and unnerving. Greek culture, he says, was the first movement of humanity beyond nature. Indeed, Greek national spirit no longer conceives of humanity as natural, but as a blend of the material and the divine. And this divinity of humanity is separate from nature.

Hegel takes this as a sign of progress, and perhaps it was. However, progress is defined not by where you will eventually go, but from where you have just been. Progress is a matter of improving yourself in the present from an inferior state in the recent past. Ancient Greece was the birthplace of modern humanism, on the Hegelian picture. I find that a sensible thesis, and an illuminating idea. 

Yet today, humanity faces a problem whose conditions were constituted by this Greek revolution in our civilization’s self-conception. It’s the global ecological crisis, about which I’ve written my other major philosophical project. The conception of humanity as separate from nature, or on some accounts and interpretations as having overcome nature, is a formidable problem for the contemporary world. If the Greeks progressed by stepping away from nature, then humanity (or if I want to be specific about location, the Terrans) has to develop a self-conception by which we are embedded in nature again. Perhaps it would be good to keep some of the divinity Hegel describes in the Greek self-concept (though I’m not fully sure yet what all the details of this divinity concept includes). But if the civilization that descended from ancient Greece carried the humanist concept of our species as beyond nature, then the civilization that descends from twenty-first century Earth must reforge our conception of humanity as natural. Progress may first have been in humanism. But progress now is in ecology.

I Am Immortal, I Have Inside Me Blood (and World-Spirit) of Kings, Research Time, 21/07/2013

So this saga with Hegel continues. I just finished reading the chapter of Philosophy of History where he says things about ancient Egyptians that would be unambiguously racist if they weren’t couched in this elaborate conception of social development. Instead, they’re uncomfortable generalizations based on archaeology and analysis of religious beliefs that can’t shake that disconcerting feeling that there is more beyond what Hegel writes of them. You know, because there is. 

But with regard to the conception of time and history, there is another intriguing idea in Hegel’s disconcerting treatment of Egyptian society. One focus in his account of their religious beliefs (in the Pharaonic period) is that they were the first to arrive at the idea of the soul’s immortality. Bending a complex truth, of course. But still fascinating. Hegel’s idea is that the spirit of the world progresses here, because humans have their first inkling that their individual existence has a greater significance that what simply appears to it in daily life. Hegel transforms the idea that the soul continues to exist after death into a juvenile intuition that the significance of your actions while alive continues to have effects in the development of the greater arc of human history.

Edward Said, who gave us
a very good book called
Throughout Philosophy of History, Hegel rails against what he calls superstition. And here, I can see the content to that beyond his gruff dismissals of Asian cultures as believing in ghosts, ancestor worship, and other stereotyping characterizations of philosophically and theologically complex religious and thought traditions stretching back hundreds of years. Hegel’s view of Asian cultures (and especially his dismissal of African cultures as inescapably animalistic which I find repulsive and revulsive) is typical of the perspective that today we call orientalism. 

He essentializes complex people (Romans and Greeks and Germans get the same treatment, but the economic and culturally destructive forces of colonialism make such treatment worse when applied to non-Europeans). But in doing so, he articulates this idea that civilizations tend to get better at understanding human history as an ongoing process that can progress and in which we are embedded by our own nature. The central element of his conception of progress appears to be developing the ability to think of your own locality as integrated into a global movement that envelopes the entire world, and which can continue temporally until the extinction of humanity. 

Yet Hegel conceives of this temporal, contingent, worldly process as the constitution of an absolute universality. But it’s an inherently material universality, articulated in human existence itself. The material world and the concept of universality become indistinguishable. This sounds like an endpoint of telos, the culmination of a movement in its perfection. But if this perfect state of human spirit on Earth is ever achieved, it faces one inescapable problem. 

Life goes on. And things will change. And to paraphrase science-fiction author Dave Stone (who has worked mostly in Doctor Who novels and Judge Dredd comics), they always do. It’s what they’re there for.

Inevitable Alienation: Hegelian World-Spirit as History, Research Time, 20/07/2013

Hegel’s Philosophy of History continues to bug me, because for every interesting insight it has, there’s a core concept in his philosophy that appears and annoys me. While I fundamentally disagree with his entire conception of historical progress, I must say that it’s very intriguing.

A simple, simplified, but good enough for the basics, summary of how philosophers typically think about time. You can think of one category as freedom. History is the movement of events knocking into each other, behaving according to their natures, but without any inevitability. Stephen Jay Gould’s writing about the history of evolution is probably the best modern engagement with this idea that I’ve come across. All events are contingent and could definitely have been otherwise. The material messiness of history is too great to predict any but the most simple matters, and most of these are unforeseeable accidents as well.*

Hegel was known as an immensely boring lecturer. It didn't
help that his Swabian-German accent was impenetrable to
most of the Berliners who took his courses, and that he had
a terrible stutter.
* I find it inescapably intriguing that so many times we try to talk about whether events unfold freely or deterministically, we end up talking about whether we can predict events. But that’s more a question of our knowledge of events, rather than events themselves. A slippery matter that I’ll definitely get back to over the course of this project.

Moving on from interruptions, asterisks, and snide remarks about terrible teaching techniques, another category of thinking about history is necessitarian. The word itself is self-explanatory. Events unfold exactly as they do, and it could not have been otherwise. Sometimes, I’ve found variants of necessitarian views of time that are teleological. This takes the necessitarian framework, and implies that the plan of historical development was seeded in the origin of the development we’re tracking.

The interesting thing with Hegel’s conception of history is that he sounds like a teleological necessitarian, but he isn’t quite. The world-spirit (the force that humans constitute through their political development, of which the discipline of history is its tracker) develops according to a conceptual structure. But it isn’t a plan, and the process of its development isn’t pre-determined or necessary. Some kind of alienation appears in society, whether it’s at the individual, community, or grander political level. The society either comes up with a negative reaction to the alienation that overcomes it, or doesn’t and stagnates. 

The structure of progress is: alienation develops, is negated, a reconciled state of affairs develops, a different kind of alienation eventually appears in the new regime suited to the new context, repeat — but variantly. That conceptual framework of development is in every progressive historical movement for Hegel. But the particulars of the problems a society faces are always different, a matter of the context of the times. And a society can just as easily stagnate and fail to develop world-spirit in its appropriate direction, as it can succeed. So while progress itself has an invariant structure, whether and how it happens is changeable and contingent. 

More thoughts on this tomorrow.

When Blogging Makes a Fine Albatross Necklace, Composing, 19/07/2013

Not every experiment works. Not every idea pans out. Sometimes an inventive thought is a dead end. That’s basically how I feel after getting some feedback from yesterday’s post. 

I made George Zimmerman a central focus of an idea I had about the importance of empathy in moral philosophy. The general philosophical goal of that post was to express my feeling, after several years working in moral philosophy, that matters like empathy don’t always get a fair shake in many of its major theoretical camps. And I briefly wondered what kind of principles a moral philosophy for whom empathy and remorse was paramount would produce. 

But I got burned. I had a dedicated follower of the Zimmerman trial call me out on my oversimplifications, stereotypes of Zimmerman himself, mistakes in analysis of the court’s judgment, and presumptions about Zimmerman’s thoughts. I had a medical doctor tell me that if he wasn’t able to tune down his remorse when he loses patients, he’d collapse and be unable to do his genuinely beneficial work. This last point is an especially egregious ball-drop for me, because I've taught medical ethics on and off since 2010, but I didn't think of this angle when I was just thinking in the context of street crime and state-administered executions.

I wrote a bad post. I departed from the facts of a real-world case in a way that I thought would be philosophically interesting, but wasn’t. I thought of an idea that I myself don’t actually have any time to pursue in detail. It was a post that discussed part of how I’ve engaged with moral philosophy over the last few years. I chose a notable example that I had been paying attention to in my real life, but used it in such a way that I did a disservice to the facts of a very sensitive matter.

It’s dangerous for me to put these little thoughts, semi-random conjectures, and ideas I come up with in my research or my memory on the internet. I’m going to apply for a spate of tenure track jobs over this Fall, and every one of those hiring committees will be able to find this blog. And if they happen to read it in a week where my posts include a higher frequency of dead ends or a couple of conceptual duds, I will likely be passed over and face another year as an unemployed academic. If someone on that hypothetical hiring committee reads a post he doesn’t like, or that is a dead end, or that considers a point that he finds easy to refute, then I don’t get any work. 

This is why many young academics are tempted keep their mouth shut and don’t publicize their publications, stay off the internet, and never risk saying anything philosophically controversial. At risk of upsetting someone who may be in charge of hiring them, they never say anything at all. It’s for this reason that on Thursday afternoon, I seriously considered deleting this blog, all the tweets and facebook posts that linked to it, and forgetting that the entire thing happened. 

But even the peer-reviewed publications, which we have to write if we want to secure a permanent position, will contain ideas that a hiring committee doesn’t agree with. Someone on the hiring committee might read an article included with my application as a writing sample and absolutely hate it. And enough academics today are familiar enough with personal and professional blogging that they know not every post will be conceptual manna raining from Wordpress. 

One danger of a blog with daily updates about philosophical ideas will be posting ideas that are, at the time, little more than suggestions and brief speculations. Not all of them will work. Some of them might turn out to be a little silly. But I’d ask you to turn to my July 17 post, and remember that while a new idea has some problems, that doesn’t mean that it consists only of problems and that the idea has nothing of value. 

I’ve seen professors who talk down to students and belittle them for a speculation that isn’t of the best quality in a discussion. In contrast, I’ve seen good professors tactfully point out the limitations of a mediocre expression, knowing that not everything said in an improvised discussion or a brief daily blog is going to be meticulously researched, impeccably defended against every possible counter-argument. And the student might just have made a mistake. Anyone can make a mistake. I did in Thursday morning’s post.

The Consequences of Intention, A History Boy, 18/07/2013

In writing news, I finished my edits of the first chapter of my ecophilosophy manuscript, and it didn’t require quite the radical changes that I worried I’d have to make this summer. I still couldn’t find a place to put that orphaned paragraph, but maybe I can find one for the idea elsewhere in this book, or in another project.

One of the typical divisions in contemporary moral philosophy is between deontological or duty-based and consequentialist moralities. These are often held (at least in mediocre undergraduate introductory courses) as the two pillars of moral thinking. Evaluating the goodness of an act will depend on what benefits or pains it produces as a consequence, or as well as it follows some moral duty arrived at through reasoning on moral intuitions or principles. In duty-based thinking, one’s intentions play a key role in determining the rightness of an action. If you did a beneficial or morally right act, and you intended to do so or you intended to follow a moral duty, then that counts as more upstanding than if you’d done it by accident. You can see how our legal systems work as combinations of intentions and consequences. Accidental harms engender lesser punishments than intentional harms. 

But I’ve always thought there was more to morality than this. It makes me something of a virtue ethicist, but I’m hesitant to identify as a virtue ethicist either. See, most of the discourse in virtue ethics today is on trying to figure out what the true virtues are. The discussions try to isolate the virtues in the same way, in deontological moral philosophy, thinkers try to isolate what the true moral duties are. And the expectation is that the virtues, like the duties, will be simple character traits that are unerringly and universally virtuous. 

My own thinking about moral virtue is more complicated. (Do you see why I don’t usually write straight articles about moral philosophy?) Because I don’t think virtues are necessarily universal across all situations of action, or that the virtuousness of particular character features can be considered in isolation of the biological and psychological nature of humans. And when it comes to considering individual acts, I still think the psycho-biological context of human nature is important to consider ethically.

George Zimmerman, smiling
This murky ground between intention and consequent was floating in the back of many of my own reactions to the Zimmerman trial. Because ultimately, I can’t judge how ridiculous Florida’s self-defense and stand-your-ground laws are. Law isn’t my area of expertise. The case was decided on the matter of who provoked the fight, and what constitutes provoking a fight. Throwing a punch? Or stalking someone down a dark, alienating suburban street? And some key jurors seemed to live in a state of reasonable doubt about reality, let alone the malicious intent of Zimmerman’s actions.

What enrages me about Zimmerman is even more horrifying than the fact that he killed a 17-year-old young man, and that his racial prejudices probably motivated his suspicions of him. It’s that he never seemed to feel bad about what he did. His brother’s nonchalant dismissal of Trayvon’s life in his Piers Morgan interview was a key sign. Killing someone shocks you; it’s a destabilizing, terrifying, traumatizing event. It’s a sign of your emotional health that if you kill someone, whether or not in self-defense, the event haunts you. Or at least upsets you. 

Fred Allen, former supervisor of executions for the state of
Texas, and in many ways a broken person.
Zimmerman seemed calm. The act of killing never upset him or made him sad. In Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Abyss, one of the most powerful interviews is with Fred Allen, a former officer in charge of executions in Texas. He would strap down inmates and supervise the doctors administering lethal injections. He dealt every day with death that was entirely legitimated by his country’s laws and his society’s morality. One day, playing a part in so many deaths weighed too much, and he snapped. He had a nervous breakdown and had to leave his job, giving up his pension and financial security because he couldn’t take part in killing anymore. I contrast Fred Allen with George Zimmerman, and I see something missing in Zimmerman. There’s an obliviousness to the gravity of his actions. Leaving aside questions of legal accountability, killing a human is a weighty act. 

And I think this aspect of human ethical life isn't considered by a lot of contemporary philosophy. The question always seems to be a matter of conformity to a moral principle to determine rightness, investigating the effects of an action to determine its benefits and harms, or whether it was motivated by virtuous or vicious character. The ethical weight of trauma does not seem to be widely considered, at least by the moral philosophy in which I've been educated over the last decade. Trauma ethics I think can be far more insightful than the tried-and-believed-to-be-true conceptual frameworks of the rest of moral philosophy. While I'm not yet sure where to start such an inquiry, I think it could be very intriguing for some philosopher out there to consider.

Zimmerman seems to have no personal remorse, no sense that he did anything wrong or even out of the ordinary. Philosophically and personally, that disturbs me.

Adam Riggio and the Shocking Concepts, Composing, 17/07/2013

Still working on the ecophilosophy manuscript, impeded by the humid weather, and left wondering whether any future success in my writing career could be invested in a summer home in the Rocky Mountains or elsewhere in the far less sweltering country of British Columbia. I did, however, get some work done, but unfortunately have isolated a paragraph of manuscript that it increasingly appears will have no place in the chapter. 

Some context for the orphan. “All these theories” I refer to are three attempts to build a theory of environmental moral philosophy that is based on a principle of nature’s intrinsic value. One author, Arne Næss, started writing on environmentalism in the 1960s, and advocated a belief system about reality that combined Buddha and Spinoza into a kind of universalist pantheism, which would replace atheist scientism and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Despite this, he said the reason for accepting this was a common intuition of nature’s intrinsic value, arrived through experiences like mountaineering. Paul Taylor’s major book was published in the late 1980s, advocating a general principle of respect for nature, but also the radical changes in lifestyle this would engender, like the scaling back of industrial society and at least paying lip service to ethical vegetarianism. Nicholas Agar, writing in 2000, accepted the common sense intuition that only that which had a mind was intrinsically valuable, but redefined intelligence so that all living creatures possessed some measure of it. He did not often touch on the issue of lifestyle changes. 
“An interesting quirk of all these theories is how, despite the underlying conservatism of their reliance on what their authors take to be widespread intuitions, they grow more radical with their distance from us in the past. It suggests that radical philosophies eventually have to make concessions to critiques from the very perspectives they are trying to overcome. If a central motive of developing a new philosophical system is to shock people from their dogmatic slumbers and see the limitations of what they take to be common sense, then philosophical criticism, rather than refine and improve ideas, actually strips them of their power to make a radical new beginning. If a philosophical radical must permit a conservative opponent to appeal to common intuitions in critical discourse, then adversarial philosophical argument forces a radical to concede authority to the very institutions and moralities she set out to undermine.”
Yes, this is another of my knocks on the appeal to intuition in philosophy. This will probably happen a lot in many different articulations and contexts. But it also amounts to a problem with contemporary philosophical manners. I mean manners as in etiquette. 

First consider the typical timeline of an academic philosopher introducing a new idea to the community. It doesn’t need to be a big idea, and my argument here works best with more modest ideas. Most of the time, a philosopher will write an essay of about 5,000 words about his new idea and publish it in a journal. Being a new idea, it’s content departs from the consensus view, as well it should. If the writer had nothing new to say, no way in which his thinking departed from the professional consensus, his essay wouldn’t have been published. 

But the usual reaction to such a new idea is criticism. The mainstream idea is well-established, and if it’s especially well-entrenched most folks in the field would consider it intuitively true. For example, when I talk about my distaste for retributive justice (a perspective I’ve only really embraced recently, after a long period of thinking on issues of law enforcement, and the role of the military, police, prohibition of drugs, and prisons in our society), I often get push-back from people who tell me that it’s intuitively true that the perpetrator of a crime or injury deserves to be punished. And the usual reaction to criticism is to make a compromise.

Because a new idea isn’t going to have a game-ready response to every possible critique it may face. And if there isn’t a game-ready response, our philosopher must concede in part. When people argue, there’s a winner and a loser. Those who can’t decisively shoot down criticisms are losers. Usually, that’s the advocate of a new idea. New ideas need time to be explored in all their implications. Sometimes, it takes generations to see all the implications of a new idea. Sometimes longer.

So when the first response to a new idea is the criticize it, the new idea dies stillborn. Its new versions include more and more compromises to the perspective it was invented to challenge in the first place. Instead of being intrigued by a new idea and exploring its subtleties, the common reaction is to attack the idea and force it to defend itself, usually before the idea’s advocates have fully explored all the idea can do. 

I referenced dogmatic slumber for a reason. That was Immanuel Kant’s line about the effect David Hume’s philosophy had on him: it woke him from his dogmatic slumbers. Hume’s ideas were epoch-making departures from what has come before. In many ways, we’re still exploring the subtleties of his thinking, and the implications of his concepts. Kant’s response wasn’t to argue or critique these ideas, defending the mainstream against an attack. He didn’t want to defeat Hume, but to include him as the foundation for a new way of thinking about knowledge. In response, Kant wrote works that have had equal, if not greater, longevity and affects as Hume’s. 

Being creative and open-minded to new directions in thought and life, not being critical and confrontational by instinct, is how philosophical progress is made, how new ideas are made and transform the ways we think.

Thoughts Travel on Good Vibrations, Research Time, 16/07/2013

The problem with having a really long work-day on a Sunday when your friends J and K have their DJ nights at the bar a block away is that when this combines with an extremely hot and humid Monday, very little creative work actually gets done. I’ve found that when I need to focus my mind on a difficult day, my musical soundtrack helps.

I’ve never been able to read in perfect silence. I need something trying to distract me from my reading so I don’t distract myself with my own chains of thought. So I play music. And I play all kinds of music, usually just according to my mood, my general sense of enjoyment, whatever I’m listening to at the time, whatever new record I’ve just discovered. But on days when my brain needs a solid stimulation to get its machinery working at a reasonable efficiency again, I play Dilla.

It isn’t just the powerful sense of rhythm that comes from Dilla’s instrumentals, or the artistry with which he renders a sound collage from samples that takes the original sonic texts into a different realm. It isn’t just that Dilla’s work is the only music that genuinely follows through on the promise of Paul’s Boutique, a promise that was largely destroyed by the litigations of music publishing corporations. I’ll let ?uestlove make the point, in a passage from Mo’ Meta Blues.
“There’s a radical rethinking of the relationship between artist and work: the album’s credited to Dilla, but what does that even really mean, given how he builds his house from other people’s bricks while at the same time decoupling the snippets of song, the bits of music, the loops, from their original source? . . . Where are these sounds coming from? Where are they going? . . . They go back to the beginning of recorded music, where the first break was made between performer and performed.”
I’m a writer. One of the reasons I’m a writer is because I have a deep need to control my product, to create without the need to rely on others who would make me waste my time and effort when they drop the ball. When I fail, I have no one to blame but myself. When I succeed, no one can take that victory away from me. Yet here are these assemblies of sounds gathered from all of history to create what has never been heard before. Dilla the artist relies on others for the very material of his art. His method of creation needs history to work, and so can only function embedded within the material of history. Yet his inspiration begins a whole new history. 

The artist as a conduit for the transformation of history into the present. A fruitful idea.

A logistical note. I think in the future, I’ll only make this a weekdays-updating blog. I’ll try weekend updates for a few more weeks, but I get declining numbers. I may be the only person I know who has the same morning internet browsing routine no matter what day of the week it is. I’ll decide for sure in the next month or so.

The Hegelian Collective, Research Time, 15/07/2013

Just a short post today, out of deference to Sunday’s rather epic essay on my aborted Werner Herzog project. In fact, I may not even link to this post in my other social media identities, and may publicize the Herzog essay again. I’m really rather proud of that as a piece of writing.

But I did get some philosophical reading done between that post and this, as I continue my exploration of Hegel’s Philosophy of History. I finished reading the extremely long introduction — it’s over 100 pages, a fairly typical length for one of Hegel’s works. One Hegelian idea that has been making me angry is all over this introduction, and is especially prevalent in the final sections. That’s the notion that individuals aren’t truly free (or even fully self-aware of their nature as individuals) until they achieve a harmonious union of their wills with that of the bureaucratic state in which they live. In other words, an individual is incomplete until they fully embrace their identity as a member of a collective.

Once again, I am philosophically enraged. The notion that an individual can only be free insofar as they are subsumed in a state incenses me, because it makes the only kind of individuality to be conformity of every element of your thinking, mind, soul, and life to the collective strivings of your state, your government, your national institutions. There is no room for deviation, only the expression of the collective will, the World-Spirit brought into being through the national movement, literally the movement of individuals aggregating into one body through the state. No deviance, no innovation, no experimentation. Only unity.

I shudder. There’s no place in such a philosophy for a freak like me. The only genuinely remarkable persons allowed in this view are World-Historical figures, individuals who embody the national spirit in their actions. Figures like Napoleon, to pick Hegel’s own favourite example from The Phenomenology of Spirit. Men who can shape the movement of other people, collectives, and nations to their will. There’s no room in this vision for the beautifully weird: Spinoza, Tesla, James Joyce, Herzog, maybe even me.

What really set me off was what he said about African people in the latter sections of the introduction to Philosophy of History. But that might come up another day, maybe when the utopias project revisits some of the works of Edward Said and the other post-colonial theorists.

Sometimes There's a Man. I Won't Say a Hero, Because What's a Hero? Composing, 14/07/2013

One unfortunate side-effect of having a mind that’s constantly buzzing with crazy ideas is that a fair number of them don’t really pan out. My Werner Herzog project was one of those. I was put in mind of this because earlier this week, my copy of My Son My Son What Have Ye Done arrived in the mail. I was ecstatic, as I am whenever I decide to buy a new Herzog, see a Herzog in the cinema, Netflix, or the lawless high seas of the internet. I have seen 27 Herzog films, and legally own 20. Beyond being a favourite film director of mine, he’s a favourite artist, a favourite personality. I am in awe of his talent, drive, and casual courage. There are few people I admire more simply as a person. He’s the closest thing to a hero I have among non-fictional people.

After all that praise, you might ask why I abandoned my philosophical project about him. See, the original conception of the Herzog project wasn’t an analysis of his films according to their technical construction or a theoretical exploration. It was an ethic, a philosophical account of how best to live as a person in the twenty-first century. It was a project of how to stare down the likely decline of humanity and the slow wheezing death of our civilization as we drown in a sea of our own shit and choke on a stream of our own bullets. How to stare down our end with dignity and a mischievous smile. I called it a happy existentialism.

If you’ve ever seen Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn, Into the Abyss, the Kinski films, especially Fitzcarraldo, or even Bad Lieutenant: POCNO, you understand how his films can fit into such a project. His Holocaust film, Invincible, is beautifully fitting to such a project in this regard, and even includes a critique of more mainstream traditions of understanding fate, death, and life. Humanity is of a wholly different nature than our ecosystems, but he films jungles and animals as if they were characters, and captures the nature of the creatures and ecosystems he films. In this sense, he offers an existentialism that goes beyond humanism. Existentialism in Sartre’s tradition never got beyond the human world, but Herzog’s films offered a conceptual groundwork to build a philosophy that makes existentialism ecophilosophical. I saw it as the natural next step of my ecophilosophy project: now that we had an ecological ontology, we next build a complete account of the ecologically virtuous person that combines respect for all the creatures and environments of Earth, but combines them with the highest virtues of creativity and nobility in humanity. 

Even beyond this was Herzog’s profound courage as a person, his impeccable integrity in his devotion to art and creativity, humanity’s noblest justification for its existence. He’s the only director to have made a film on all seven continents. He has risked his life, had his life threatened, threatened his own life, suffered through horrendously painful injury (like his snowmobile crash that cracked half his ribs while filming Encounters at the End of the World; he got himself bandaged and was filming again within two days; he was 64 years old at the time) for the sake of his art and the safety of his casts and crews. 

His morality is of creativity, practicality, and respect. His film school was all about instructing young filmmakers in the mercenary lawbreaking required to make art. Herzog Film School 1000: How to Forge a Shooting Permit. He still owns his very first camera, which he stole from a warehouse on the grounds that he was going to make films with it, and it would otherwise have just sat on the shelf. He considers this act entirely justified for that reason. Look up the story of how he dragged Joaquin Phoenix out of a wrecked car. To me, there is no man more ethically admirable than Werner Herzog.

If, in the course of this long, meandering, hopefully entertaining post, I have encouraged at least one of my readers to seek out some Werner Herzog films they hadn’t thought to watch before, I will have made the world a better place.

After all that Herzog love, you might ask why I abandoned the project. It’s because of his women. I had my idea for the Herzogian existentialism project in late 2009, and in early 2012, as I watched Invincible for the second or third time, I had a terrible realization. Every woman who was a major character in a Herzog film was either a riff on the Virgin archetype, or a riff on the Whore archetype. The male protagonists were drawn with all the singularity and petty uniqueness of real human life. But the women were archetypes. And in the plots, the only real importance the female characters served for the narratives were how they affected the men.

Virgins: Helena Rojo and Cecilia Rivera in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Sonja Skiba in Heart of Glass, Isabella Adjani in Nosferatu 1978, Marta in Invincible (a Virgin who Tim Roth treats as a whore), Frankie at the end of Bad Lieutenant.

Whores: Eva Mattes in Woyzeck and Stroszek (especially weird, given their long-term romance in the 1970s to 80s, and his being the father of her daughter), the daughters of the plantation owner and the dungeon full of sex slaves in Cobra Verde, Frankie throughout most of Bad Lieutenant.

There are more complex cases, of course. Mattes’ character in Woyzeck may have been raped; her scene with the drum major in her bedroom makes consent ambiguous at best. And her character in Stroszek tries to give up her life of prostitution, but her arc in Wisconsin is clearly one of increasing desperation and hopelessness. Kinski’s character in Cobra Verde who rapes the plantation owner’s daughters and runs the Ghanaian sex dungeon acknowledges that he is an objectively reprehensible and incurably evil man. Claudia Cardinale in Fitzcarraldo is faithfully devoted to Kinski’s character, but also runs the best little whorehouse in 1890s Peru. And his own relationships and ethics regarding the women in his own life show an immense respect for women, and his knowledge that gender doesn’t matter when it comes to being true Übermenschen.

But compared to the complex paradoxes of ambition, strength, frailty, terror, and joy that are Hombré, Aguirre, Kaspar Hauser, Hias, Bruno, Fitz, Zische Breitbart, Dieter Dengler (the real guy in the documentary and Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn), Tim Treadwell, Terence McDonagh, and I am leaving people out because this list is already too long? The women are almost all cookie cutters or else utterly absent from his films. And I am too devoted to the importance, beauty, joyfulness, and strength that a similarly complex female character can be to paper over this problem with Herzog’s body of work. No matter how much I admire him, this is a dealbreaker when it comes to the new existentialism.

So that project is getting an overhaul at some point. I don’t yet know what to turn it into or how to structure the project. I still love Herzog, and I admire him as one of the great artists and most dignified men of the human race. But this perennial flaw in his work keeps me from engaging with his films for the happy existentialism project. And without that centre, the project has nothing really holding it together in its writing.

Despite it all, nonetheless, I believe in Werner Herzog.
Now, if so much of this post is about old ideas and the past, you might ask why I labelled it Composing instead of A History Boy. It’s a fair question. Because the History Boy posts are matters of influence, stories of how I got to where I am today. The Herzog project is more than just an idea that never really developed into something I could work with. Because that would imply that I’ve left it behind. But Herzog’s art and life is still vitally important to me. 

More than that, the happy existentialism project that Herzog’s work originally inspired is still an ongoing concern. It’s fundamental to the ethical elements of my entire philosophical perspective. Whether or not there will ever be a work in my bibliography specifically devoted to it doesn’t really matter. These ideas inform my life. They’re what I aspire to as a person. Even a man as great as Herzog himself can’t live up to the ideals his work has inspired in me. To hold those ideals in the face of all the madness and terror the world can throw at you, and in the face of the weaknesses that lurk in your own heart on your darkest, most hopeless days, is an expression of the noblest strength of which humanity is capable.