Harry Frankfurt - Bullshit!

Bullshit is everywhere. I know it. You know it. And yet, what exactly is bullshit? You might agree with Justice Potter Stewart when he once famously remarked "I know it when I see it" (although he was talking about hard-core porn at the time), but that kind of answer is not going to cut it with philosophers, a group notorious for their love of rigor and analytical precision.

How would you define bullshit? How would you distinguish it from, say, lying, or telling falsehoods, from humbug, from deception, from accidental or deliberate misrepresentation? What does it take for something to rise to the level of bullshit? Does it depend on the truth value of an utterance or speech act? On the intention of the speaker? On the inferences a speaker makes about an audience's state of mind? And, normatively, is bullshit more reprehensible than lying? More innocent? More insidious? Does it belong to an entirely different ethical classification?

Fortunately, philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote the (very short) book on Bullshit a few years ago, trying not only to provide a conceptual analysis of what bullshit is exactly, but to also say something about the ethics surrounding bullshit. Here's a little preview of why it matters:

"The essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony."

Must Society Recognize Trans People's Gender Identities?

Between the fact that some celebrities have recently come out publicly as members of the transgender community, on the one hand, and (fueled by an unsubstantiated and distorted presumption that unfairly equates transgender individuals with sexual predators) recent legislation in some conservative states attempting to ban transgender people from using restrooms incompatible with the sex indicated on their birth certificate, on the other, the question of transgender rights has taken center stage in current political discourse.

Simplistic arguments, especially those coming from the ideological and religious right, which conflate the biological concept of sex with the philosophical concept of identity and the cultural concept of gender, and those that unquestioningly adopt a dualistic interpretation of these concepts instead of a spectrum (or a series of interrelated spectra) would be intellectually laughable if they weren't so pernicious in their practical and ideological influence. Which is not to say that there aren't other interesting and important perspectives and points of controversy on this topic. Questions regarding the phenomenology of bodily and gendered lived experience, cultural appropriation; challenges to the very ontological legitimacy of gender itself; intersectional questions regarding privilege and oppression; biological essentialism; constructivism; performativity; whether we should erase differences or celebrate them, and how, permeate the philosophical landscape. And because education is often best achieved by exposure to and analysis of various perspectives engaged in a dialectical process of civil discourse, we're showcasing today a fascinating Intelligent Squared debate on the question of whether society has a moral and/or legal duty to recognize trans people's gender identities.

Plato - Meno

Plato's Republic is widely recognized as his philosophic and literary masterpiece, but many of his shorter dialogues are also exquisite demonstrations of philosophical brilliance and argumentative cunning. The Apology, for instance, in which Socrates defends the value of philosophy and the principles that informed his own moral character, is universally taught in literature, rhetoric, oratory and philosophy courses as one of the most powerful speeches ever delivered. His Euthyphro makes an intellectually convincing case, and a hilarious one at that, for the independence of morality from religious foundations. The Symposium provides a fascinating account of the nature of love and its relationship to Beauty. The Crito provides a dramatic account of justice and of the appropriate response to injustice. Etc.

In Plato's Meno, showcased here today, we encounter, condensed into one brief discussion, an important account about the importance of defining concepts in terms of their necessary and sufficient conditions, a theoretical framework for how to investigate philosophical questions, a beguiling paradox about inquiry and whether we can know what we think we know, a fascinating account (and proof?) regarding the immateriality and immortality of the soul, as well as a theory of knowledge as recollection from previous existences, some allusions to Plato's theory of the Forms, an explicit demonstration of the Socratic method and its importance for philosophical reasoning, a demonstration of hypothesis testing through dialectics, and much, much more... all in the classic style for which Socrates was reviled by his detractors, loved by his pupils and admirers, and celebrated by lovers of wisdom ever since...

Boswell's Life of Marx: There Will Be Beard!

Ever since the publication of his Life of Samuel Johnson, the name Boswell has become synonymous with biographical genius and companion. In philosophical circles, the story of his encounter with David Hume shortly before the latter's death is usually told as a testament to Hume's courage and commitment to his philosophical views. Unlike the death-bed conversion Boswell was expecting, Hume surprised him, and earned more of his respect (and incredulity), by affirming his skepticism concerning the immateriality and immortality of the soul. Boswell is said to have experienced nightmares as a result of said meeting.

But Boswell's influence has also broken the barrier into fiction. In A Scandal In Bohemia, for instance, Sherlock Holmes famously compliments his faithful friend and chronicler, Dr. Watson, by confessing to him "I am lost without my Boswell." And in the brilliant BBC TV adaptation Sherlock, in which, through the medium of blog entries, Watson recounts Sherlock's adventures and mishaps, there's a subtle allusion to the original Holmes quote above (and a clever play on words on the Boswell reference) when Sherlock tells Watson: "What would I do without my blogger?" (Sherlock has lots of those great and gratifying allusions and references for those familiar with the original canon.)

But apparently Boswell eventually turned into a drunk and horny time traveller, traversing the fabric of space-time and visiting parallel worlds on a quest to document the lives of geniuses... or the whole thing may have just been one LSD-induced dream. It's not quite clear. Either way, the following is a hilarious treat about Marx's thoughts on seizing the means of production, and on his followers' attempts to seize the means of reproduction:

Will Durant - The Philosophy of Plato

There are many great introductions to the history of philosophy. Some do a fantastic job of explaining the thoughts and theoretical frameworks developed by philosophers; others contextualize the philosophy in light of their historical milieu; others attempt to understand the past through the perspective of the people who lived at the time, while others try to make us understand the importance of these timeless questions from within our own time and place; others tend to focus on the lives of the philosophers, and to try to understand the philosophy by focusing on the biographical details; others provide thoughtful commentary and philosophical criticism; etc.

One of the classic and most engaging introductions to the history of philosophy is Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy. The exposition of philosophical ideas and the biographical details are always fascinating, and the quoted passages are perfectly chosen, but it's Durant's wit and penetrating insights, always beautifully crafted into eminently eloquent aphorisms, that sets this book apart. And as if that weren't pleasurable enough, this audio rendition, read by the eloquent and thunderous voice of Grover Gardner will make you feel the philosophy in a way that transcends the purely conceptual pleasure of learning and understanding...

Check out the Will Durant tag for more on this great series.

What Is Socialism?

Like political correctness, socialism is one of those concepts everyone keeps throwing around, usually derisively, without really knowing what it means.

Although the concept of socialism did not start with Marx, it is helpful to remember his analysis of capitalism, to which socialism can perhaps be better understood of as a response. According to Marx, capital is accumulated labor: capitalists, those who own the means of production, become wealthy by keeping for themselves some of the value created by their employees. Capitalists have a vested interest in extracting as much value from their workers as they can while compensating them as little as possible, producing in the process an ever-growing gap in the bargaining power between the two camps (just look at the gap between rich and poor in the US). According to Marx, labor—which under natural conditions is a source of meaning, value and identity—becomes under capitalism the greatest source of human alienation and exploitation.

Socialism, then, can be understood as an attempt to check the imbalance and exploitation inherent in free-market capitalism. In its worst and most perverted manifestations, however, 'nationalist socialist' regimes have tyrannically appropriated the means of production and taken on the role of the capitalists without protecting the interests of the people, predictably leading to the social and/or material ruin of their countries. Such approaches have merely substituted one oppressor and form of corruption and greed for another while illegitimately maintaining the title of 'socialists.' Such tyrannical and corrupt systems are usually referred to as Marxist (or sometimes also Leninist) Socialism. As an indefatigable defender of freedom, however, Marx became so appalled by the misinterpretation and the misapplication of his ideas that, according to his life-long friend and intellectual collaborator Friedrich Engels, he once declared "All I know is that I am not a Marxist."

In its best manifestations, however, most notably in democratic socialism, where the government is beholden to the people, wealth is made to work for the protection and welfare of all members of society: the incentives for economic success and upward mobility are there, but opportunities for success do not depend on the accident of inherited socio-economic status. Rather, wealth is used to create the conditions that make it possible to meaningfully empower everyone to be able to adequately pursue their own individual conception of the good, and then to pay it forward. Under democratic socialism, these material and structural conditions—quality education, healthcare, unemployment protection, safe working conditions, housing, regulations for economic and environmental sustainability, etc.—are understood as basic human rights, owed to every single citizen, not as the privilege of a wealthy elite.

To most Americans this may sound like an unrealistic pipe dream. But the proof of concept already exists, most notably in the Nordic European countries (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark), as well as Germany, Australia and New Zealand, all of which consistently score highest on the various indices used to measure well-being: education, health, safety,  civic engagement, gender equality, environmental sustainability, life satisfaction, income equality, work-life balance, working conditions, parental leave, rates of recidivism, etc. These remarkable rates of success can be at least partially attributed to the importance such governments place on enacting policies that are supported by comprehensive social science research, and to their strong commitment to protecting individual rights. This is not to say that these countries don't have problems of their own, of course, but they do represent an alternative model to the good life that is well worth considering, and possibly emulating...

If socialism is such a great idea, why hasn't it taken root in the United States? Well, ignoring the Pavlovian mental associations forged in the mind of Americans, especially during the Cold War, and given our narrow conception of competitive, boot-strapping individualism and the American (pipe) dream of upward mobility, there's a famous quote, apocryphally attributed to John Steinbeck, well worth considering, which argues that:
Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

Historians, ethnographers and sociologists know what I'm talking about...

Understanding the Refugee Crisis and Its Impact

Back in September of 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis took center stage in the world's awareness when the body of a cute three-year old, Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore lifeless after he drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to escape the violence and devastation that President Bashar al-Assad has been unleashing on his own people since 2011. Terrorist organizations such as ISIL are also responsible for a significant amount of the death and destruction, but it's Assad who manages to fly below the radar of consciousness while being responsible for most of the devastation.

As of today, around a quarter of a million people have been killed in Syria (two-thirds of them civilians; 13,000 of them children). This is an incredibly complex issue, with lots of moving parts, plenty of blame to go around, many conflicting interests and power struggles, and lots of points for possible interventions, but it would greatly help to get straight on the facts, one of which is the all-too-important distinction between 'migrant' and 'refugee' status, as John Green does in the following video:

There are those who callously claim that Syrians need to 'go back home' so they can solve their own problems instead of asking for 'handouts.' What such facile and inhumane statements ignore is the fact that 'home' for many Syrians just doesn't exist any longer: their cities and towns have been obliterated into a huge wasteland of rubble where the violence continues to expand, rendering the thousands of buildings that have not been completely pulverized into death traps that could collapse at any moment. But why take my word for it when you can see the destruction with your own eyes?

And here is John Oliver on the way that hateful groups have been using racist and zenophobic language to dehumanize these poor people in their time of need:

These people need our compassion, not our indifference or our hate...

Philosophy Talk - Jean-Paul Sartre

The nice folks at Philosophy Talk have just put out an episode on the highly influential French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Like his compatriot Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who began his highly influential The Social Contract with the now famous line "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains," Sartre is probably most famous for his thoughts on freedom: specifically for his thoughts and defense of existentialist radical freedom.

While his early phenomenological analysis and defense of freedom tended to focus primarily on the authenticity of individual consciousness, Sartre's later thoughts became more complex (and some might even say inconsistent) as he began to understand and incorporate the insights of historical materialism into his philosophical and political narrative, and there's an interesting discussion of that, as well as many other fascinating themes, in the episode below:

Mass Incarceration in the US

In addition to the physical walls that separate free citizens from those who have been incarcerated, there are also powerful and self-fulfilling metaphorical walls that make it difficult to see and recognize (for historic, cultural, corporate and political reasons) the humanity of countless human beings whose lives have been unnecessarily wasted when we threw away the key after we locked them up for no particularly good reason.

We talk about these cultural 'wars' (the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on crime), but then we tend to forget that our actual practices have become a de facto war on the poor, on the homeless, on black and brown, and a war on criminals, and we forget we've made it a crime in this country to be black or brown, to be homeless, poor or unemployed, to be transgender, to struggle with mental health issues, to lack proper nutrition, healthcare and education. And we treat these issues—especially when applied to non-whites—as issues that require we lock up and abandon the very people who have been the victims of systemic injustices and lack of opportunities for most of our history, the people who are in most desperate need of our compassion and our help... And the numbers, the sheer numbers!!!

Here is sociologist Bruce Western on the virtual inevitability of ending up in prison for certain demographics, particularly young black men:

Here is Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the powerful Between the World and Me, on the enduring myth of black criminality and how our response to various social issues that we could very well solve through humane sociological interventions, are often treated instead as mere issues of criminality:

Here is documentary producer Matthew Cooke providing some historical context for the ways in which racial biases have been created, maintained, strengthened and perpetuated in an effort to serve the economic interests of a wealthy elite at the expense of some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised members of our society:

And if you want a more thorough understanding of the systemic history of racial inequality, the structures and institutions of our legal system, the political backroom deals, the financial incentives, the self-perpetuating logic of the system, the targetted and discriminatory application of these draconian and inhumane measures, as well as the consequences for individuals, for families, for communities, for race relations, for our nation as a whole, for our own cultural perception and collective self-identity, and for the impact on our culture and values, I can do no better than to recommend you pick up and read Michelle Alexander's powerful exposé and manifesto The New Jim Crow, which you are also welcome to listen below:

And just for a little perspective on how we compare to other countries (to our shame, unfortunately), click on the following infographic:

In the land of the free, we can do better than to thoughtlessly acquiesce to the fear-mongering and racism that has denied so many people the liberty we all want to claim for ourselves...

Immanuel Kant - Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

One of the most fascinating moral frameworks philosophers have developed, to say nothing of its incredible scope, influence and depth, has got to be Immanuel Kant's deontology: the idea that the basis of morality is to be found in the self-determining principles of a rational and autonomous will, willing universal principles based on its recognition and respect for moral obligation, is particularly refreshing, especially in a time when we evaluate so many moral issues simply on the basis of hedonistic cost-benefit analyses, principles of non-interference, individual and collective self-interest, neoliberal values, relativism and post-modernism.

According to Kant's deontological framework, the basis of moral reasoning is not to be found in anything empirical or contingent (such as human nature, social mores, religious dogma, tradition, individual dispositions, or even the consequences of our actions). It is, rather, to be found in the nature of practical reason itself: in the discovery of universal principles applicable to, and discoverable by, any and all rational beings (both in and out of this world).

Kant articulated his thoughts concerning morality most fully in his Critique of Practical Reason and in The Metaphysics of Morals, but he wrote a 'popular' introduction to his theory for non-experts, which many people consider a cruel joke, since they think the text is still impenetrable. Luckily, Nigel Warburton has decided to present Kant's ideas in a short and accessible format in the following audio clip based on his book Philosophy: The Classics.

And for more, check out the Kant tag .
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