Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Romantic German Painters: My Favorite

I've always loved Caspar Friedrich's work, and a recent visit to Blackburn's homepage reminded me of the Wanderer in a Sea Fog. Below is a painting that reminds me of the walks my wife and I take at night. She is a philosophical muse, but the man and woman contemplating the moon stand in for all those times she lets my philosophical soul run rampant.

Words, Reference and Being

A couple of days ago, I sat with a prestigious philosopher of language. He claimed that Heidegger was a fraud. The substantive claim revolved around Heidegger's fixation on the obscurity of Being, and dislike for science (amazingly enough the reasons for disfavor weren't concerned with the politics of the man!). Thus, we can see this charge as amounting to both a claim about Heidegger's ambiguous word-usage and uncritical rejection of science. In this post, I want to dismiss these as mere hand-waving. There is, indeed, a purpose to the language use, and points made about science and technology. I'll speak to each point in turn first starting with the claim of language.

Ambiguous word usage is sometimes called the charge of obscurantism. Commonly, this charge is made also against Derrida and post-structuralist thinkers as well. In Heidegger, the language use reflects the methodological commitment of Heideggerian phenomenology. Legitimating this project involves several things that should be noted about the project itself. Good criticisms only come from charitable understanding. First, Heidegger regards philosophy as uncovering the implicit structures of our practical everyday being-in-the-world, which means that philosophy is directed at describing the concrete facticity of human existence, not fundamental inquiries of a more conceptual nature. In this way, Heidegger intends to turn philosophy inside-out. It no longer concerns the tripartite Kantian division of logic, metaphysics and ethics. Instead, philosophy works not from the outside looking at problems in the previous areas, but exposes from within those relations that are taken for granted in our everydayness. In this way, Heideggerian phenomenology looks to uproot common associations in our experience of being-in-the-world.

Secondly, the concern with Being is a philosophical problem abandoned in the practice of philosophy, and Heidegger needed to develop a way of retrieving and uncovering this old problem that's no longer talked about in a more original way. As such, he chose to pursue it through the lens of phenomenology which seeks to describe things as they reveal themselves. Phenomenology amounts to describing the world as it is lived and experienced through and through. Hence, the language is in the service of looking at a phenomena long since avoided in philosophy to begin with. We can pay attention to things like how relate to our own mortality or the inauthentic modes of our decisions. The upshot of thematizing things of our everydayness means philosophy has more to dealing with our actual existence than dealing with problems abstracted from the way we encounter the world (as Kant would have philosophy divided into logic, metaphysics and ethics). This also means the language must reflect those lived experience structures now coming under the attention of phenomenological description. Indeed, some creativity is needed in developing a language that can render the problem of Being in a way we can answer the question through phenomenology.

Now, the common move is to suggest that Heidegger doesn't mean anything by observing that the meaning of his terms are obscure. Sure people talk about authenticity or being-towards-death, but does that talk pick out anything really real in the world? Well, this attitude starts from several observations. Let's get the first one out of the way. First, the problem with such general skepticism coming from analytics is that reading a German thinker in translation, and judging them by the translation is severely misplaced. However, let's move beyond that one and straight to the heart of the matter. Heidegger is hard to understand. Yet, the implicit strategy of the skeptic is to mistrust Heidegger since the only true way we can speak about the world is somehow informed by the sciences (I say somehow informed since I want to leave a lot of room for disagreement amongst naturalists). However, it cannot be that the sciences are all that is true. Instead, what needs argued is a different but just as reliable way of knowing, namely, showing that the humanities can succeed in ways that the sciences cannot. Maintaining the sciences and humanities as distinctly different allows for us to speak about things that the humanities speak about (legitimating the literary side of things is one positive contribution that underscores much of Gadamer's project). In the same way, this also is Husserl's point about giving priority to the phenomenological viewpoint as a realm onto itself.

On the next move, Heidegger grew suspicious of science and the norms that constitute its possibility. The best articulation of the connection between his philosophy of technology and science comes from Iain Thomson (Understanding Technology Ontotheologically, or: The Danger and the Promise of Heidegger, an American Perspective," in Jan-Kyrre Berg Olsen, Evan Selinger, and Søren Riis, eds., New Waves in the Philosophy of Technology (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 146-66.). For Thomson, the critique of Being is a critique against our metaphysics, that is, the dominant metaphysical view (an ontotheology in the words of Heidegger and Thomson) that determines the limits of our conceptual understanding and interpretation of the world--as well as the source of the attack on Heidegger's antiscientism!

I thus interpret Heidegger's understanding of the ontotheological structure of Western metaphysics as advancing a doctrine of ontological holism. By giving shape to our historical understanding of 'what is' metaphysics determines the most basic presuppositions of what anything is, ourselves included. This is what Heidegger means when he writes that "Western humanity, in all its comportment toward entities, and even toward itself, as in every respect sustained and guided by metaphysics" (N4 205/NII 343). This ontological holism explains how the successful ontotheologies can function historically like self-fulfilling prophecies, pervasively reshaping intelligibility. Put simply since all entities are, when a new ontotheological understanding of what and how entities are takes hold and spreads, it progressively transforms our basic understanding of all entities...our great metaphysicians help establish the fundamental conceptual parameters and ultimate standards of legitimacy for each of our successive historical epochs (150).

This has a lot to say against any contemporary scientifically-minded philosopher that thinks Heidegger full of crap. They impose the standards of what is available to them at their own time. The authority of science purports to describe what basic categories exist, and if words can only express real things in the world, then the ontological holism of our time will determine the extent to which words are ontologically real and accessible. However, Thomson adds more to follow. There's a point to linking ontological holism about the ontotheologies with the culmination of Nietzsche's thinking

Nietzsche is the pivotal figure in Heidegger's critique of technological epoch of enframing because, according to Heidegger's reductive yet revealing reading, Nietzsche's unthought metaphysics provides the ontotheological lenses that implicitly structure our current sense of reality...As Heidegger, thus puts it, Nietzsche understands the 'totality of entities a s such' ontotheologically as 'eternally recurring will-to-power,' that is, as an unending disaggregation and reaggregation of forces through their continual self-overcoming (In this Nietzsche was effectively universalizing insights Darwin had already drawn from his study of living entities and Adam Smith from his examination of the economic domain). Now, our Western culture's unthinking reliance on this implicitly Nietzschean ontotheology is leading us to transform all entities into Bestand, mere resources standing to be optimized, ordered and enhanced with maximal efficiency...[regarding ourselves]no longer as modern subjects seeking to master an objective world, but merely as one more intrinsically meaningless resource to be optimized, ordered and enhanced with maximal efficiency, whether cosmetically, psychopharmacologically, genetically or even cybernetically (151, brackets mine).

Now, one interpretive picture is in view about what is meant by Heidegger. Science is embedded in an enframed mindset by which the Nietzschean impulse to optimize translates into the outcomes of science, technology. The more this ontotheology spreads the more we relate to the world and ourselves differently. In fact, Heidegger says at one point that only "what is calculable is being." In other words, the very words we use must refer only to real things as determined by this pervasive ontotheology. This is his reason for being critical of science. As it produces more insight, the more Heidegger's critique of technology becomes apparent, and for Heidegger, the situation of this ontotheology is not replacing itself as it did in the past. Our way of talking is, now, stale. We've grown into a dogmatism within this enframed mindset and alienated ourselves from the very primordial relations that shape human experience. The very primordial relations to the world through art, literature, poetry, history and philosophy become/are continuously displaced, set farther away from our particular experience. This criticism of science might also explain the phenomenological demand of our age. A phenomenologist seeks to recover some sense of meaning in the world in opposition to the natural attitude that vitiates our experience of it. Ever since phenomenology's inception, the Nietzschean impetus for optimizing increases in reality, and this is also what Husserl and Heidegger have in common--or this is just me interpreting Husserl's criticism of the natural attitude through the Heidegger.

It can be said for these reasons that a) Heidegger is "onto something" with his use of language. Secondly, it can also be said that Heidegger's anti-scientism is defended for more critical reasons than is often charitably acknowledged.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Levinas Conference

I have reproduced the Call for Papers for the North American Levinas Society meeting in Toronto.
Philosophy and its Others
The Fourth Annual Conference and Meeting of the North American Levinas Society

June 28-30, 2009
University of Toronto (Ontario, Canada)
Submission Deadline: April 13th, 2009

Conference Announcement and Call for Papers

Celebrating the fourth anniversary of our founding, the North American Levinas Society continues in our aim to build interest and promote dialogue around the important work of Emmanuel Levinas. Last year’s conference at Seattle University was a tremendous success, again bringing Levinas’ family from Paris and Jerusalem together with young scholars from across the world to forge important relationships and foster respectful discussion around the question of the sacred, the holy, and the ethical.

This year, the Society broadens its international scope, as we organize our first meeting and conference outside of the United States. We are pleased to announce our 2009 annual meeting and conference, to be hosted by the University of Toronto (Ontario, Canada). Confirmed plenary speakers include Dana Hollander (McMaster University) and James Hatley (Salisbury University).

The North American Levinas Society invites submissions of individual paper proposals and panel proposals for the fourth annual meeting and conference to be held June 28-30, 2009. While we will organize the conference around the broad theme of “Philosophy and Its Others,” we will consider proposals for paper and panels on any topic related to Levinas in an effort to draw the widest array of interests.

Especially in the Continental traditions, Levinas’ work is integral to a serious and sober examination of the history of philosophy and its priorities, blindnesses, insights, inner tensions, and possibilities. We pose this broad theme at a time when certain modes of rationality continue to prop up structures of economic inequality, perpetual war, and uncertainty. Given the current state of global economic and political relations, how must philosophy orient itself to help effect a healing and mending of the world? What is the relationship between philosophy and hope, activism, and reconciliation? We might begin by asking questions about Levinas’ difficult relationship with philosophy. How has the discipline and history of philosophy affected Levinas’ thought, and how has Levinas impacted the discipline and history of philosophy? How has Levinas’ philosophical critique of ‘the tradition’ been received and appropriated by other domains of inquiry, such as religious studies, Jewish studies, political science, women’s studies, gender studies, sociology, history, performance and media studies, race theory, legal studies and jurisprudence, literature, cultural studies, disability studies, environmental and ecology studies, medicine, and others? How has Levinas’ reception and application in these various fields in turn affected the discipline of philosophy?

Certainly, these are only a few questions regarding “Philosophy and Its Others” broadly posed, but it is clear that such questions open our own work to a more difficult, and perhaps edifying, scrutiny. We are also interested in receiving panels that address the relation between philosophy, the ethical, current political affairs, community, justice, and pedagogy.

* Individual paper proposals: Individual abstracts, prepared for blind review, should be 500 words outlining a 20-minute presentation. Accepted papers will be organized into panels of two or three presentations.
* Panel proposal: Panel proposals, consisting of 2-3 speakers, should be 1000 words for a 75-minute session. Please include the session title, name of organizer, institutional affiliations, discipline or department, along with the chair’s name and participants’ names in addition to 250 word abstracts detailing the focus of each paper. Prepare panel proposals for blind review as well.

Please send materials via email attachment (preferably Microsoft Word) to: submissions@levinas-society.org.

If you have questions regarding the Society or the conference, please send inquiries to secretary@levinas-society.org.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Revamping of the Beauty Myth Argument

A friend of mine has a good post against the objectification of women.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Obama's Centeredness A Weakness for Reform?

While I have revealed in the past a deep affinity for the Democrats, there are some areas of disagreement. The following conclusions came from a chance meeting. It just so happens that my old MA Advisor walked into a Starbucks where I happened to be grading essays. Since he's been on sabbatical, we haven't had a chance to talk. As Americans in Canada, we starting discussing my move back to the US, and how two ethicists perceive the current attempts to rectify the American economy. My advisor claimed Obama's politics is a form of conservative consequential socialism.. By this he meant:

Conservative consequential socialism recognizes an intervention as morally justified for the greater good by conserving status quo economic institutions with public funds.

Now, I take from this two possibilities.

First, if the system of capitalism requires that some institutions fail to accrue wealth or achieve stability, then there might be some reasons to let them fail, that is, if we want to remain capitalists. On some level, this may be too naive, or at the outset, too harsh. We are talking about a consequentially driven line of thinking. Yet, the attempt to bolster or enhance current institutions so that people may retain their jobs rather than have those institutions fail might engender worse consequences in the future which means that CCS might not achieve the maximization of good consequences it set out to achieve.

Secondly, conserving current institutions may be the entirely wrong approach. Unlike the first point, it is possible that capitalism is an inherently self-destructive. Perhaps, we should have moved away from it. With the amount of money so far spent, we could have funded people's salary for several years, given them education to better themselves in science and mathematics, or developed auniversal health care. In so doing, the institutions would have failed, and people would be worse off currently. However, the institutions that improve human life would exist come time for things to improve in the future.

Now, my point is that the centeredness of Obama rests on standing between the first and second proposal. He's too moderate to ever let capitalism run its own course, and he's too moderate to ever shift focus to a more European model where public programs ensure some level of prosperity for everyone. It may just be the case that one of the more extreme positions is more correct than attempting to remain moderately center of one over the other. If that is the case, then Obama might not be able to see what is necessary to be seen, or perhaps, his centeredness is more nuanced than I have picked up on.

Either way, I am doubtful of the amount being spent though I remain cautiously optimistic. I want the best for the United States. However, I think that Obama could learn a little from Aristotle. First, wealth is instrumental in helping people achieve the Good life. This only means that the more money people have, the more a chance they have to refuse the ill-choices of those who have not. Secondly, when exemplifying generosity with one's wealth, you must only give to those that would remain virtuous. Giving money to the same institutions that perpetuated an active deception is questionable since they didn't make the right choices when they had wealth (or made choices to maximize their own interest beyond what virtue required) and we have no reason to think they would change for the better.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Inadequacy of Religious Reasons

I have been making a claim for some time informally, and wanted to spell it out more clearly. My claim concerns what reasons an agent may count as metaphysically adequate for acting. Put more eloquently, false ontologies cannot ground reasons for acting. I call this principle, the principle of metaphysical adequacy:

POMA: An agent with reason R cannot be justified in doing A as long as R is derived in principle from a false ontology.

Add a few premises and you get something like:

(1) POMA
(2) Religious literal interpretations or sources of revelation are derived from false ontologies
(3) Therefore, no agent with a religious reason can be justified in doing A, or ~A.

When one tries to capture the nature of practical reasoning, the positive thesis about what constitute the range of practical reasoning provide us with a way of thinking about what is both rational and irrational. In this case, (2) advances a wide claim, a net intended to ensnare the rationality of religious considerations. Literal interpretations and divine revelation provide no reasonable evidential weight for deliberation, and count as irrational. In the age where one could hardly deny the authority of science and its advancements, thinking that reasons are generated by interpretation and revelation take on board too much metaphysical baggage.

I feel (2) is a stronger and more robust way of advancing the claim that we can only act on true reasons. The problem with putting the epistemic constraint on reasons is that the epistemic constraint is always very general, and the problem is construed in terms of motivation for acting moral reasons. The problem of acting on true reasons isn't held in the same regard post B. William's Internal and External Reasons. In extremely simple cases, it is easy to see its relevance. Bernard Williams uses the example of a glass of petrol when someone thinks it is a glass of gin and tonic. Clearly, if this person acts on his belief, then the mere fact the glass is petrol nullifies this person's reason R for doing A. That person can be said to be no longer justified.

In stronger cases, the epistemic constraint requires a commitment to what is metaphysically adequate. Imagine Suzie is a fundamentalist Mormon. Her faith and community do not endorse R, where R might be “Abortion is morally permissible.” In fact, following her faith, she is dedicated to ~R. However, according to (1) and (2), ~R cannot be true. The Mormon faith isn't a good view of the universe and what it proposes about the nature of abortion is false. As such, if we want to ground considerations against abortion, they cannot be religiously-based. I imagine it is still feasible to entertain metaphysically adequate considerations against abortion just as much as it's opposite.

Now, the problem of religion becomes clear. There is no principled way to discriminate against what other religions claim and what others do. Is the Bible more reliable than the Lotus Sutra? Buddhism and Christianity are far apart on many issues, and to think that there is a way to discriminate within religion itself is foolhardy. Religions ascribe to particular beliefs about the authority of some reasons over others. These views are extreme enough to warrant consideration that they could ever fulfill any metaphysically adequate criterion. This problem comes in view when we see extreme cases where the diachronic elements of our history stand unconnected to ancient Biblical times. In Leviticus, I am to stone any child I would have in the future for talking back to me. Yet, I can't think that has any potential to ground moral reason I am to act on.

To summarize, I haven't claimed any positive proposal as to what is metaphysically adequate, that is a true ontology. However, I think we can take some clues from a more dedicated openness to learn just what our reasoning is psychologically, and perhaps, those sciences having contributed so much to human understanding might offer glimpses into the nature of practical reasoning. Until then, I am skeptical and continually remain so that religions satisfy any threshold of certainty beyond themselves to justify a moral reason. Moreover, if a non-naturalism is to succeed in grounding reasons, then those reasons cannot (at least) derive from religion. Whatever the source of normativity, that is the source of our reasons for acting must demonstrate an adequate story as to where those reasons originate and how they function for moral deliberation.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Who is the most important Continental philosopher in the 20th century?

Selection Votes
Husserl 9% 30
Heidegger 35% 110
Agamben 1% 4
Arendt 1% 2
Badiou 2% 7
Baudrillard 0% 1
Blanchot 1% 2
Bataille 1% 3
Beauvoir 1% 2
Benjamin 1% 2
Derrida 8% 25
Deleuze 11% 36
Foucault 8% 26
Gadamer 1% 3
Irigaray 0% 1
Butler 1% 2
Kristeva 1% 3
Lacan 3% 8
Lyotard 1% 2
Levinas 1% 2
Merleau-Ponty 1% 4
Nancy 0% 0
Ricoeur 1% 2
Sartre 3% 8
Adorno 5% 17
Habermas 3% 8
Scheler 0% 1
Schutz 0% 0
Bergson 0% 1
Zizek 2% 6
Total votes: 318

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Work of Greg Mortenson

For those of you having an interest in ethics, I was really moved by Greg Mortenson. Check out his blog here, and his charity here. He is the author of Three Cups of Tea, and has built dozens of schools to educate young girls in Afghanistan. In the interview on NPR's Tell Me More, he lectures public officials and Army Cadets at Westpoint about amending the injustices of ignorance--a more moral way to proceed in fighting extremism in the world.

In the interview, they had one school attacked, burnt to the ground. The Taliban thinks that women should not be educated, and so the one school rebuilt and hired armed guards to kill anyone that doesn't identify themselves as they approach the school! You have to ask yourself how in the age of the 21st century does one need to hire mercenaries to protect a school of girls? Now, I'm no stranger to the injustices of the world. I just think that a man who thinks that educating young girls and giving the gift of knowledge is more of a hero than a recipient of a purple heart.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Husserlian Themes Again

This is the first two pages of something I am working on. It is for the North American Levinas Society at U of Toronto if I can get it done in time.

The Ethical Subject in Husserl: An Ethical Interpretation of the Fifth Meditation

According to Levinas, ethics starts with the recognition of the otherness of the Other. There is something so radically different about the Other in my experience that no totality, no representation can encompass the Other so understood. The Other is not like an object of my perception couched in terms of modernist epistemology with similar talk of representations. Instead, there is something radically different about the Other As Levinas puts this point,

The Other remains infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world that can be common to us...1

Even more to the point, when I represent the Other in my own understanding, there is an asymmetry between my self and the Other. I can make demands of myself that I cannot make of the Other. There is a lack of reciprocity between both the self and the Other. As Simon Critchley puts this point,
When I totalize, I conceive of the relation to the Other from some imagined point that would be outside of it and I turn myself into a theoretical spectator on the social world of which I am really part, and in which I am an agent. Viewed from the outside, intersubjectivity might appear to be a relation between equals, but from inside that relation, as it takes place at this very moment, you place an obligation on me that makes you higher than me, more than my equal.2

In other words, there is an inadequate understanding of the Other in ethical theories that ‘universalize’ or ‘totalize’ the conceptions of how one moral agent relates to another. Above, Critchley divides the problem in terms of an outer and inner perspective about totalizing ethical conceptions of the subject, the agent. In the former, equality – which I take as having moral status in a moral community – might be exemplified by Kant’s kingdom of ends. We are all rational beings and it is our capacity for rationality that grounds our moral considerations such that we all form a moral community of autonomous subjects.
Within the inner perspective, there is a problem. Within the experience of being a subject, I know myself more fully, more intimately. When I represent the viewpoint of another, the very possibility of intersubjectivity dissipates. I make claims of the Other in my representation of them. My claims of obligation reduce the Other to a logic of sameness rather than considering them in terms of their singular and concrete nature. I respect the idea of someone, not the transcendent person outside of me—not the face that escapes all representation.
In this paper, I want to overcome the inner and outer problematic of ethical subjectivity as it relates to the Other. Those in the company of Levinas are wrong. It is possible to establish the experience of the ethical subject as sharing in an equal relationship both within and without. We must establish the concrete ways in which the ethical subject relates to the Other. This requires us to explore what moral intentionality would look like, and what constitutes such moral intentionality. In order to argue this point, I turn to Husserl’s Fifth Meditation in the Cartesian Meditations.3 I argue that Husserl’s Fifth Meditation can be interpreted as offering avenues for exploring moral intentionality. In so doing, I begin to sketch an account of the ethical subject answering the worries of Levinas and his contemporary defenders.4

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Teaching Experiences of Asserting as Arguing

This semester has been a tremendous joy to lead a tutorial group in a basic introduction to metaphysics and epistemology. Currently, I am reading papers, and the course supervisor and the TAs (including myself) have went through great pains to teach philosophy as a dialectical enterprise. However, I've said this many times over and over, philosophical argumentation doesn't equal Group or Author X claims A while Group or Author Y claims B. The language of claim-making is what they are taking the exchange to be about. Students aren't moving to the level of finding out reasons why these groups or authors endorse their claims.

I'm wondering if other people have this experience. Certainly, a range of philosophy students "get it" over others that see arguments as just making assertions. I'm wondering though if there are pedagogical strategies that reach beyond repeated demonstrations through examples and concepts in lecture that this is not the case.

I'm looking for contributions to this thread that provide favorite examples of teaching philosophy as a dialectical enterprise. Also include your favorite assertions qua arguments that students typically make. Several semesters ago, I had a student claim that God exists because supernatural powers stemming from Sikh meditation prove that God exists.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Survey Update

I have only a 183 votes.

I want to run this for another week (March 17th) or so, and then post the results. For all those that voted, I want to say thank you.

Interview on CBC's Hour

Scott Westerson is from Portland, and used to own a contracting business building gardening structures. Suddenly, he quit his job, and became a citizen embedded journalist with both American and Canadian forces in Afghanistan. Initially, he spent a year filming a documentary that will be coming out entitled At War.

Some footage is detailed on the show's blog.

For those Americans back home, George Stroumboulopoulos is a wonderful interviewer, and I wish I knew about him prior to moving to Canada.

When I listened to the interview, I couldn't help but be a philosopher. The interview got me thinking. An embedded journalist is "in the thick of things." By going to the war zone, the journalist attempts to bypass both distance and bureaucracy. These are in direct opposition to learning the truth. We cannot feel for our American or Canadian soldiers if we don't know what they go through. The attraction of the embedded journalist is to make us feel by providing us, as did Scott Westerson, with a "raw" depiction of what our soldiers experience. Somehow, the rawness of embedded journalism is more real, more -- shall we dare say it -- truthful. Is it more truthful though?

I have nothing to offer except some curious skepticism if such embedded journalism does "get to the heart of the matter" in a way that mainstream media does not. Certainly, it is different.

Secondly, consider another point Westerson makes about war. Westerson praises the solidarity he feels for the soldiers manifest in live combat exchange.

Just some thoughts...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Being and Time Ruminations

I keep coming back to the power of Being and Time. For the next upcoming year, I said I would read this book as part of my New Years resolution. I'm mostly through Part 1. In addition, I have glossed some secondary literature, and I am always surprised at the wide variety of Heideggers available (See commentary on the paradigm shifts of Heidegger research here).

One such interpretation sees philosophy as bringing to light the facticity of human life. Philosophy's purpose is to interpret the concrete particular singularity of human life, that is, to develop a phenomenological approach to the hermeneutics of the facticity of being. As an ethicist, this is an affront on a discipline (and those that practice it--like myself) that would want to make sense of the concrete particular experience as a case for an application of a moral reason (whatever the ground might be for the normativity of that reason-we'll leave that open). Value talk is common-place, but has its power in its abstract and general nature. The more general and ideal a normative reason is, the more range of application over like cases a normative reason possesses. Heideggerian philosophy, on the other hand, thinks of our traditional philosophical concepts as distorted by tradition. This can be seen by looking at the structure of human life.

Human life is characterized by its concernful dealings (what I heard Dreyfus refer to as 'practical coping'). We 'care' about things to the point of circumspection, that is, avoidance of life that has a tendency to simplify life into one massive inauthentic whole. Heidegger describes this as fallen. We allow tradition to overtake our ownmost possiblities in which we interpret our own possibilities in an inauthentic manner. I find this is basically an amoral stance, and comes at the expense of thinking philosophy is only to make the particular and concrete manifest in our experience. Ethics doesn't do that.

Yet, people who want to construct theories of our moral reasoning, and find out exactly what the source of normativity have to navigate a sea of moral intuitions. We inherent a moral code, and as reflective individuals, we weigh the content of our code to see if it stands up to our suggested normative theories. Thus, part -- if not all -- the conceptual resources of ethics goes against the existential emphasis of this reading of Being and Time..

Heidegger did not think highly of the atemporal idealism that found its way into Husserl's phenomenology. However, I am reminded of what John McDowell said of Bernard Williams Internal and External Reasons. He said that some form of transcendence is needed for the ethical, and a rigorous science examining evident acts of cognition cohering together might not be the transcendence we want, it is at least a better candidate than a philosophy that undercuts tradition (our moral code) as an initial inauthentic mode of human comportment. My point is to only shed light on what accepting this might mean. Let's consider it's possible that our moral code might not have all morally good reasons. In it, it might contain moral judgments like 'Abortion is acceptable when the mother's life is in danger' and 'Bullying one's way through life is virtuous way to. Since the moral code is accepted by us as letting tradition overtake our possibilities, the moral code is at odds with the proper aim of a historicized examination of the concrete matters of human life. The moral code just gets in the way of authentic living. In fact, there might not be anything like action-guidance in terms of moral theories, but just some contingent reasons why we think our moral code is as it is. It just so happens that the first proposition is better as traditionally understood rather than the second one. Does this seem acceptable?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Laura Miller has a horrendous review of Critchley's new book, The Book of Dead Philosophers

The review gets really bad on page 2 when Miller naively divides philosophy into its two camps of analytic and Continental philosophy. Now, while I think there might be something said about this distinction, certainly this cannot be it:

Critchley is an adherent of the continental strain of modern philosophy, as distinguished from the analytic strain favored by American and British philosophers. To put it very roughly (and consequently provoke squalls of protest), the analytic philosophers concern themselves with what the universe is, or rather how we can know what it is, while their continental counterparts are more focused on the question of how we ought to live. Critchley doesn't have much use for the analytic side and its conviction that "philosophy should aspire to the impersonality of natural science." He's not especially respectful of science in general, and speaks slightingly of American philosophy's "infatuation" with it. A few scientists (Galileo, Darwin) are included in the book; others, such as Newton, Einstein, are not. Perhaps one reason why classical philosophy gets little more than a flyover from Critchley is that it was fundamentally entangled with the sort of discipline that we now call science. He is more comfortable with thinkers devoted to ethics, metaphysics and aesthetics.

Ethics cuts both ways across the Divide. It's naive to think that Critchley is the par excellence of pursuing this question. Many people have echoed this criticism on the salon.com, and I won't give it too much attention. Instead, I'll only say that I am disappointed that the general question of ethics is taken to be Continental and somehow analytic philosophy means just being "infatuated" with the natural sciences. This just oversimplifies the contribution both types of philosophy make to their respective fields.

Obama's Effort at Transparency

Here is a released memo of the US Department of Justice about the range of Presidential powers the Bush Administration thought it had regarding the War on Terrorism.

Best Continental Philosopher?

Who is the most important Continental philosopher in the 20th century?
pollcode.com free polls

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What Is Philosophy?

This is the oldest and most common question I am asked: What is philosophy? I've quoted some short answers given by the staff and students at the University of Dundee (the only Scottish University where one can take up serious reflection on Continental philosophy without going to Essex or Warwick). I like them since each in turn encompasses some aspect of philosophy. Of course, if you want to contribute to this blog, then suggest in the spirit of these short tidbits what you think philosophy is:

What is Philosophy?

"A way of understanding what shapes our beliefs and actions"

"Clear and distinct reflection upon our cognitive practices"

"Openness to thinking about the familiar in unfamiliar ways"

"Learning to continually scrutinise beliefs"

"The creation of concepts"

"The incessant attempt to think how that which is could be otherwise"

"The destruction of worlds and the construction of better, new ones"

"Reversing the normal direction of thought"

"A critical practice responding to our present"

"A way of thinking; since thinking defines the nature of being human, philosophy is of fundamental importance"

For more information about the Dundee Philosophy department, click here.