Saturday, June 15, 2013

Barzun on William James

I am reading some of Jacque Barzun on understanding and reading William James. I found this passage rather unique:

[The real problem] in James as writer of philosophy is his irrepressible humour. He shares with Swift, Lamb, Samuel Butler, Shaw, Chesterton, and Mark Twain the disadvantage of having used yet one more rhetorical means which, though legitimate in itself and generally pleasing, somehow distracts all but the fittest readers. Most people seize on it as an opportunity to escape from the serious thought just preceding and thus miss the seriousness in the next, the humorous one. The great humorist always runs the risk of not being taken thoughtfully, while the normal men of ideas, faithful to solemnity, invariably are.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Caputo and the End of Ethics

Caputo has a book, Against Ethics, that deals with the same thesis in the Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory; it's entitled End of Ethics. I hate the article. In fact, I despise the point: regurgitate Levinas about singular uniqueness of the individual, the radical alterity of the Other, and think Levinasian phenomenology calls into question the existence of ethics as a discipline in philosophy that seeks out how to deliberate about right and wrong. For Caputo, ethics deals with universal rules and duties, and Caputo simply continues the well-intentioned Levinasian line when Levinas says in the opening of Totality and Infinity, I hope to "not be duped by morality." Instead, we should be uber-ethical and allow for the singular uniqueness of others to overflow. The ramification of accepting his critique is that he has given us one duty at the expense of thinking his critique is not a replacement for the supplanted duty. Yet, it is. The Levinasian critique just functions as a super-duty from which everything else depends. However, Levinas never gives you a way to think about respecting the radical alterity of the other except maybe to never reduce the singular uniqueness to another. However, this superduty could be equally guilty of the same reproach of formalism often accused of Kant's categorical imperative.

The contempt for ethics originates in the following two claims: A) a very Kierkegaardian reading of morality as singling out the universal and B) somehow believing that the universal harkens back to the language of presence called into question by so many of the poststructuralists discourses in other disciplines (the very same stupid disciplines that give rigorous study of Continental texts a bad name). The belief is so widespread in these circles that to make any universal claim - let alone a philosophical claim about the methods of normative ethics - is to commit to the impossible. These critiques are many and they might focus power or language as reasons to why we cannot know or utter universal claims in ethics.

However, limiting a discussion about ethics to rule-following is idiotic. If contextual-dependency really undermines the capacity for universal claims and a global morality, then it is not the content of morality we should be so concerned. Instead, we can still talk about the agential capacities and offer robust conceptions of ethical experience to mesh with how we experience values. We will find that a variety of capacities are shared between people, and that we can talk about how best to apply these capacities in a world where morality is seen as only following rules and doing one's duty. All in all, Caputo's pronounced end of ethics is always offered too soon. Just because we are skeptical of a particular research program does not entail the immediate dismissal, but instead we should see just how far our skepticism extends. In limiting his critique to duty, he cannot delimit virtue ethics (though he does some work to dispense away with virtue ethics as yet another way in which believers in ethics are deluded), which calls into question duty-responses to moral reasons inherent in the context now facing us.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Threads of Power

One central theme developed in pragmatism and nowhere else in philosophy is the power of an idea. For the pragmatist, the conceptualization of the idea follows from their effectuating force in the consequence of human action. Thus, a secondary – but no less influential idea – follows from the rule of conceptualization. Ideas exert an influence in their effectuating force on human experience. They are effectual, and this may be referred back to what I meant by the power of an idea, its effectuating force.

            When we study an idea, we can trace its effectual possibilities it possessed in the past and what such an idea may hold for us in the future. However, as many have noted, pragmatism is extremely focused on the possibilities of action to improve life. Therefore, pragmatism is often locked temporally with its attention to the future. There is little, if any, attention paid to the past. Yet, pragmatism’s insight into the effectual power of an idea can be read backward through the hermeneutic threads that have persisted. Through hermeneutics reflection, traces of ideas can conceived when we retell the interpretation of their past. Gadamer strictly delimits that interpretation is always enacted to understand the situated present.

            I will suggest in this lecture both methods may be united to address how various threads of power converge in the present. The power of an interpretation arises when we first look to the possible conceptual linkages of an idea maintained with other ideas or concepts. An interpretation synthesizes various possible linkages between ideas and/or concepts; I call these narrative threads. The past concretizes in the interpretation of various narrative threads in the present act of understanding, and a sense of that idea’s danger, necessity, or emancipatory sense illuminates the present-into-the-future. Then, we can evaluate the status of any given narrative thread pragmatically. Let me give an example.

            Narrative threads underlie the formation of any discourse, and in fact, many discourses do not acknowledge the historical senses implicit that inform these threads. Specific to our reflection, here, the concretion of these discourses take for granted how they are constituted by the reification of those that appropriate an idea to exert its power. My concern is for threads of power. When the Affordable Care Act passed, the government mandated that everyone purchase health insurance or face a penalty on their taxes by January 2014. The conservative disagreement is about the mandate itself. It forces people to purchase a service they do not want. If someone cannot identify how their labor mixes with the gain of one’s own self-directed purchasing, then Obama and the Democrats are transgressing the Lockean norm about property to which we in the United States are so ensconced. There is an implicit and formative sense of violating liberty here that can best be understood as an idea deriving from Locke. Like it or not, ideas are efficacious to the conceptual space in which these narrative threads are at work at the intersubjective level. If the Affordable Care Act is to succeed, then a cultural dialogue about Lockean status of property and liberty must be addressed.

However one understands these claims, these ideas are situated in a thread and the concepts of that thread form a narrative in which the ideas work a certain way. Synthesizing the temporal orientations and methods of pragmatism and hermeneutics allows us to detect the movement of these effectual threads of power. We can ask how exactly did the Lockean norm arise? Where did its philosophical emanation exert its influence the most? Jefferson? Or did Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence implant ideas of liberty and property in the public consciousness to the point that these ideas have infected the political imaginary for several generations? One can easily notice that wealthy Americans have a particular fondness for the concept of the individual that Locke articulated in the 17th century in what is now called “The Liberty Movement” and the rise of the populist libertarian.  In that fondness, the fondness for individuality can be exposed in its shortcomings that arise when we take into account exactly whom an individual can be. For when the 17th century mind conceived of an individual’s liberty, women and other minorities were not conceived in that narrative at all. Consequently, “all men were not created equal” as we might say given that public consciousness now conceives African-American men as men. In fact, Locke wrote slavery into South Carolina’s constitution and Jefferson owned slaves. The thread of power, here, may inherit these same difficulties of patriarchy and exclusion. Mitt Romney’s 46% are not established property-owners, but in the words of Ayn Rand “takers.”

These ideas (and many more) are linked to us today. In fact, the pragmatic-hermeneutic stance is committed to the fact that an idea may be at work in ways that we cannot imagine. The point of the philosopher is to be sensitive to the historicity of ideas and how ideas continue to exert their influence. So many threads of our ideologies and knowledge intertwine. Religion folds into politics. Politics folds into economics, and even religion folds into economics creating a culture saturated with how these threads tie together. Bound together, these threads create knotted narratives that often make little sense and threaten the ethical well-being of those people that unwittingly participate within these narratives. A significant effort of the philosopher is to untie these threads and distill their essence for others to see their harmful effects.

Friday, May 17, 2013

James and Scheler Comparative Paper Introduction

The following is the beginning of an essay I am writing. I thought I would share it here. 

           Phenomenology is a name for a variety of approaches that take experience seriously. In these approaches, the common desideratum is to describe concretely the constituting subject acts in relation to the constituted object. The core of phenomenology is the systematic description of this co-relational act-object structure in which neither act nor object is privileged more than the other. If descriptions are not concrete enough, then the phenomenologist has either privileged one-side of the relation or neglected a dimension of lived-experience that should remain explored in her descriptions of that co-relational structure. I argue that Scheler’s description of intentional feeling loses sight of the concrete lived-body and this encounter with Scheler through pragmatism opens up the deeply felt dimension of reality that underlies both James and Scheler’s philosophy. In trading the relevance of the lived-body for enduring psychic and spiritual feeling, Scheler reveals how feeling intends the values of the Holy and culture. In these feelings, the values acquire a sense, but no mention is made of how those values manifest in the experiencer involve the lived-body.
            With the dearth of the lived-body, one could insist that Scheler is neglecting a crucial aspect of overall phenomenological experience. Thus, there is a crisis to be faced. On the one hand, Scheler gives a description of intentional feeling and the value correlates that constitute experience. In saying that, Scheler’s values involve our world. They appear on the back of deeds, persons and things. They illuminate aspects of our lived-experience in this world, and yet by denying the relevance of the lived-body in the experience of values in feeling, the disembodied nature of the higher feelings calls into question exactly how concrete Scheler’s phenomenology is beyond its articulation in vital feeling. By revealing the embodied relevance of the lived-body in psychic and spiritual feeling, we no longer must face a crisis of concretion in Scheler’s thought. The crisis is dissipated once we start to read Scheler’s thought pragmatically, even when we move beyond the lived-body.
            However, I do not stop with the crisis of making Scheler’s notion of the lived-body more concrete. This is only an opening. Instead, meditating on Scheler’s lived-body opens up a common pragmatic ground revealed by James. Both Scheler and James regard feeling as constitutive of experience before we can articulate anything about experience. Experience is shot through with feeling. Moving from the relevance of the lived-body and feeling, I start to open up the basic insight that James not only saves Scheler from his own irrelevance, but the commonalities on the very relation to reality can open up a powerful pragmatic interpretation of Scheler’s later metaphysics. Let me describe how I see this paper unfolding.
            First, I outline the problem of disembodied feeling in the four value-rankings that appear in the Formalismus. In the second section, I introduce William James’s pragmatic thought as a way to conceive of feeling situated in a body. Working from James’s Principles of Psychology, I argue that the James-Lange hypothesis can remedy the observed defect of Scheler’s intentional feeling. In the third section, I defend three points of agreement between Scheler and James and what I take to be a Jamesian reading of how the divine is felt in James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. In the fourth section, an analogy is made from James’s Varieties as a way to regard Scheler’s later metaphysics. Since Scheler’s later metaphysics articulates life’s energy as an impulsion (Drang), and Scheler works from the bottom-up tracing impulsion in the lived-body, I interpret this transition as Scheler coming to grips with flaw I observed in his disembodied intentional-feeling in its higher forms. Regarded pragmatically, the activity of intentional feeling described on the side of impulsion and its relation to spirit (Geist) is shown to have the pragmatic consequence of putting embodied-ness back into feeling. While I confess that one could read Scheler’s metaphysics as an internal solution to the problem I point out, a pragmatic reading avoids the charge of metaphysical dualism, and illuminates Scheler’s pragmatic appeal to a larger world that may benefit from it. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Graduation and Current Wisdom.

I have done it. I have burnt bridges, but damn it, I did it. In some sense, I should be screaming a triumphal tone. I should have many responsible and thankful things to say, but they really would only be about two people this year, two faculty members that went above and beyond for me while I learned who never had my back at all. I will refrain from any more comment lest the forces of darkness seek me more harm.

I can tell you what I learned from receiving my Ph.D. in philosophy.

1. There are little if any jobs. The fact that so many of us are unemployed when we reach the other side proves that the system is not sustainable. Warn your friends, but don't put much stock into them listening. They will be enamored with writing their dissertation, and if they do, suggest they take up a trade.

2. If you attended a non-Leiterite school, you are worse off for it given that gatekeepers in the profession did go to those schools. Yet on the other hand, if you did attend a non-Leiterite school, you may be the one-stop solution to smaller liberal arts college departments. It's a mixed bag.

3. Powerful people in the profession are best avoided altogether. These same people may demand disciple-ship. Search your soul if you want that. I would advise not picking them as supervisors; they don't have the time to develop you, unless of course they are actually interested in you as a person. Pick a supervisor who will give a shit about you as a human being. Life will be easier.

4. Learn a little lesson about how philosophy is actually written before graduation. Philosophical papers advance specifically outlined theses, and the grad student requirement of being open to new ideas is fine. Yet, do not think that when you are done that you must be open to every single philosophical idea. Hopefully by the time you've written a thesis or dissertation, you should decide what arguments are the best and have some idea of your own commitments. You should be a good listener about various positions that you do not agree with, but thinking that being critical is being dismissive is stupid. The point is to have the conversation. Moreover, the Continentals that can see exegesis or interpretation as an argument to be had make more headway than those that cannot. See next rule.

5. If you've spent years only reading Continental philosophy, the best of luck to you. That's all I can say. Even I cannot abide such people. Hermeneutic insulation does nobody any good.

6. Learn to discuss your ideas in a public forum without being insulted that someone might disagree with you completely. If you cannot do this, change professions.

7. There are bullies and sycophants in every department. There are people that hang on every word of some powerful personality or consider themselves such a powerful personality. Sometimes, the sycophants have learned to think only one way and argue something akin to Marxism would conclude X, Therefore X (Pick your philosophical position). Their inability to argue from a point of view other than their own should be a strong signal to you. Avoid them, or in the very least, avoid anybody not interested in actually being your friend in the truest Aristotelian sense.

8. Learn to tell the indifferent from sincere.

9. Learn to read another language. Don't be an analytic philosopher of language that can only speak English. There's something very bizarre about such a person.

10. There is no boys-network to which being a white male confers an advantage when one comes from a non-Leiterite school. White privilege and being male is a product of entrenched political alliances and if your institution is without resources, then there is no advantage to be had. Move beyond this talk. Try to be the best philosopher you can be and demand the same from all genders. The most helpful way to do this is to insist upon clarity of argumentation. Be a colleague to anyone that will reciprocate professionally in kind. If someone never reciprocates, cancel the relationship. In graduate school, you don't have time to dilly-dally with those that never take you seriously as a person, let alone a scholar.

11. A dissertation is not your magnum opus.  Get it done. About half of all doctoral candidates bail out at this point. The dissertation is simply a demonstration of your ability to focus on one research area for an extended period of time. It also teaches you how to organize your time and what editing professional research is like. You will also master Chicago Manual Style. Above all, remember one simple adage: the best dissertation is a done dissertation.

12. Put the X-box on the shelf. Commit to one gaming session a week, if that. Nothing more.

13. If you are married, stay out of departmental politics altogether. When the grad students get stupid and go out and drink, go home to your spouse. A lot of the stupidity of graduate student life occurs when the academic life and social life intermingle with alcohol.

14. Avoid people that mythologize victimhood, especially when they are better funded than other people.

15. Avoid curmudgeons that have an axe to grind against you. These people usually swear a lot and hate your optimism about life. Optimism may be naive, but it helps with the drudgery of life with a Ph.D.

16. Avoid graduate school if you can. If you are forced to go either by your own soul or some other strangely spiritual force, attend a program that is able to fund you for four years.

17. If you are practicing German pronunciation, do not look at yourself in the mirror. You will think you are Klingon.

18. When you are ABD, do not think of yourself as a student. At that point, you're a scholar-in-training.

19. Read all you can about teaching. Teaching is your bread and butter.

20. If your program produces scholars, or pays little attention to professional development, then pay attention to what Georgetown is doing with its Ph.Ds. They did stellar in the 2012-2013 job market. Their website building and neatly composed syllabi are just two of the reasons we should all seek to emulate their professional development.

21. Read New APPS blog. It rocks.

22. Jettison your blog the moment you go on the market. Blogs can be a personal repository of information as to how you developed. You should simply present the developed best version of yourself at an interview.

23. Relate to others as colleagues even if they do not reciprocate in kind.

Friday, April 19, 2013


I have been offered a job teaching Introduction to Ethics. I have been given full creative control in designing my course, and while I have not talked to the department, I wanted first to reflect on teaching ethics for myself. Feel free to speak to me about where you also see an Introduction to Ethics course, and its value.

Earlier in the semester, I objected to an Intro to Ethics course I learned about. The Professor had designed it to re-direct the class away from classical theory survey course, and instead, he taught the class under the question of spiritual vocation or calling of the students. Marx and Weber were principal sources of reading for the course. Had the Professor done right by the students? Maybe. I am ambivalent about it. As one might expect, some of the students were ill-prepared to think about their own values in relation to being called in life. The students "didn't get it." In fact, this experience of being-called or acting under a spiritual vocation does not really "catch" the current undergraduate mind as much as thinking of morality in terms of rule-following.

Yet, the class makes sense when we think of how limiting rule-following accounts can be. I prefer virtue-ethics and sympathize with the designer's intention. Yet again, the purpose of an Introduction to Ethics class may serve several functions that prevent what we, as moral philosophers, think about morality. We should be honest about that. Our theoretical approaches might pre-dispose us to teach certain ways over others.

The purpose of an Introduction to Ethics course introduces students to what philosophers have said about living a moral life. In so doing, the practical upshot of this course is that it forces students to reflect on issues in their own life in a systematic way. Ethics can open up reflection in ways that the student never considered. For the philosophy department, the Introduction to Ethics course may serve as a primer for higher courses in applied ethical courses or a higher-level ethical theory courses. If the department views the course in this way, then an implicit harmony of this intention must be reflected in the Introduction to Ethics design. Some departments might view freshman level courses as services courses in the core curriculum and teach the same theories independently of what the Introduction course teaches. If that is so, then I need not worry about its relation to how the department teaches higher-level ethics courses.

If students will never take another ethics class ever again, then it seems reasonable that theoretical survey approaches would be used. Pack as much ethics in as much as possible! Students should learn a good deal of deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics. They should study how these approaches can illuminate different cases and find some exploration in applying these methods to cases themselves. However, the theory survey approach can be done in two ways, and by delineating two ways, I do not mean to suggest that these are mutually exclusive. They are not.

First, we can use primary readings of major philosophers. At some places, undergraduates are equipped with the reading skills to do this; other times they are not. Second, we can use someone that has explained the ideas for them. The former can be done through requiring students purchase translations of Kant, Aristotle and Mill, or I can use a historical anthology. Public institutions typically favor keeping the cost down for students and anthologies or cheap translations are used. At SIU, the Dean wants departments to be sensitive to the fact we have the highest amount of grant funded students in the state.

Regarding the latter, I can teach someone like Rachels that puts the ideas together for the student. In such a class, students are removed from the burden of thinking through difficult readings. They are responsible more for getting the relations of the ideas right as someone like Rachels has articulated them in the reading. In this way, I do not teach the content of Kant and Mill from their own words, but how Rachels articulates them. In some ways, this is easier on my end. I am not burdened at lecturing about a philosophical text, but could focus on the arguments as extrapolated by Rachels. I focus more on the ideas, but then again so do the students.

I could supplement teaching philosophy through the use of literature. For instance, I could use Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning or Elie Wiesel's Night. Sometimes, I feel the Holocaust is a bit used and abused. If anybody has thoughts on this, I would love to hear it, and for the record, I do agree with Nussbaum that literature has a place in teaching ethics. I have even heard of a class using Agatha Christie novels.

Next, I could restrict the amount of theory that is done, and devote an entire class to the best approach to ethics. As a virtue ethicist, I cannot help but think that a course on virtue approaches might be the best way to proceed. I could restrict the course to a time period, like Plato's dialogues, Aristotle and some of the Stoics. Then, I could fast-forward to contemporary appropriations of those same themes. Yet, given the other thoughts about the role of Intro to Ethics, the course may serve other functions that such a restriction would be seen as a disservice.

Finally, I have been thinking about the classic three text Introduction to Ethics. I select three texts pitched in a meta-narrative I tell the students. I devote five weeks to in-depth study as to what the philosopher says. Of the three, Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals is used as the skeptical text. Of the three, I am thinking De Beauvoir, Nietzsche and Kant. I would teach Kant as a person that thinks that morality requires a foundation. Nietzsche would be skeptical of that foundation, and De Beauvoir would articulate an ethics even in light of a lack of foundation--a point that Nietzsche would agree with her on. I would fit these texts together and use the class to tell that story, roughly speaking. On my part, I would say that this is the most avant-garde of how I have imagined teaching this course. The drawback of this selection is that the course must come to a synthesis of the texts relation, and when I do that, I do not necessarily apply those ideas outside of that narrative easily. That might generate two conflicting aims to which the students might confuse, and it might stifle teaching the material.

At most public universities, they teach an anthology that divides up the course into three components: metaethics, normative theory and practical ethics/applied ethics. Let's call this the tripartite conception. For the most part, I find this approach reasonable. It keeps the cost low, and there are several texts that are devoted to this distinction with readings in each of the three sections. Of those that I have seen, Schafer-Landau's books are commonly used. Students get a sense of all the types of moral philosophy. The drawback is that students think about ideas, the readings are analytically dense and eschew the historical side of moral philosophy. As everyone knows, I am devoted to understanding philosophy through its history. I do not know if I could sacrifice that even if I taught a classically analytic and ahistoric approach to moral philosophy.

In summary, I have talked about 4 approaches: theory-survey approach, restricted-theory approach, three-text approach, and the tripartite conception. In addition, I have also talked about some ideas concerning the selection of texts from anthologies, primary authors and to the supplementing these with literary examples. I have not drawn any specific conclusions. Instead, I am leaving it purposefully indeterminate, and invite comments about how best to teach Introduction to Philosophy.

Le Guin on Libraries

Ursula K. Le Guin has been my favorite writer for years. Before Hogwarts, there was Roke Knoll and Isle of the Wise. Before Raistlin, Ged chased Cobb. Before Butler's performativity of gender, there were the Gethenians. And even Harold Bloom once claimed, emphatically it would seem, "Le Guin, more than Tolkein, has raised fantasy into high literature."

In a book of essays I own by her, The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination, she writes:
Plunging into the ocean of words, roaming in the broad fields of the mind, climbing the mountains of the imagination. Just like the kid in the Carnegie or the student in Widener, that was my freedom, that was my joy. And it still is. That joy must not be sold. It must not be privatized, made into another privilege for the privileged. A public library is a public trust. And that freedom must not be compromised. It must be available to all who need it, and that's everyone, when they need it, and that's always. (22-23).


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Joe Rouse's Paper on Heidegger and Philosophy of Science

Every once in a while, I find a paper that I really enjoy. Joe Rouse's paper on Heidegger and his philosophy of science is a good expansion in an otherwise serious area of neglect.