Tamar Gendler - An Introduction to Political Philosophy

The conceptual structure and theoretical underpinnings of the modern world, for better and worse, have been possible in no small part thanks to the work and intellectual courage of philosophers trying to figure out how a just and equitable society, in which individual liberties are protected, can be established and preserved.

Many concepts that we take for granted today as self-evident once had to be thought up and defended by daring thinkers—often with their own lives—against societies and regimes whose own interests, history and vision of self-evident truths blinded them to new and better possibilities.

When devising the constitutional and political structure of a society, what kinds of principles should carry priority? How should we adjudicate competing claims not only between individuals but even between principles? How should we go about weighing and balancing the rights of individuals vs the interests of society at large? Where do individual rights come from in the first place? How can we simultaneously maximize concepts such as freedom, justice, and equality when they can so easily stand in inversely proportional relationship to each other? What are legitimate ways to divide civil rights and responsibilities, to distribute wealth, to enforce compliance? How can we establish trust and cooperation between states and nations? What kinds of institutional and structural mechanisms ought to be instituted to carry out and protect these various ends?

If you've ever been curious about any of those questions, then the following Introduction to Political and Economic Philosophy, presented by Yale philosopher Tamar Gendler, would be a great way to get started on your own intellectual quest.

And if that peaked your interest, you might also enjoy Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel's celebrated course on Justice.

Simone de Beauvoir & Judith Butler on Gender

Though Plato's thoughts on gender equality—at least as expressed in The Republic—were somewhat ahead of his time (though that doesn't say much, considering the misogyny of ancient Greece), the legacy of his theory of eternal essences has been used throughout history, intentionally and unintentionally, to reinforce the oppression and subjugation of women.

Variations on the concept of the 'eternal feminine' have been invoked by thinkers as diverse as Dante, Bacon, Rousseau and Goethe to reinforce the belief in inherent differences—and a subsequent hierarchy—between men and women. Men, according to this scheme, were depicted as embodying the active, penetrative principle responsible for activities such as conquest, dominion and calculation, while women were said to represent passivity, modesty, purity, gracefulness, servility, politeness and nurturing.

In the 19th century, those notions started to be challenged by philosophers such as Nietzsche, who was opposed to all forms of dualism and essentialism to the very core of his being, and John Stuart Mill, who famously declared that everything men know about women is what men have taught men about women without ever asking women who they are or what makes them tick.

Such challenges would eventually rise to new heights when French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir declared in The Second Sex that gender is not an eternal, inescapable metaphysical, or even biological, essence, as had been traditionally assumed, but merely a social construction that robs women of their freedom to determine their own destinies and identities. In what has become perhaps the most famous line in her book, Beauvoir argues: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."

Femininity is not 'secreted by the ovaries,' nor is it 'enshrined in a Platonic heaven.' It is, rather, the result of a particular—and regrettable—situation according to which Man is considered as self-identity, whereas Woman is always defined as Other, as not-man. Man is the Absolute, Subject, autonomous, active, self-defined, independent, strong, positivity. Woman, on the other hand, is defined as Other, as Object, as inherently alien and alienated, as naturally constrained by her body, as negativity, passivity and reaction, as dependent and weak. This, of course, Beauvoir thinks, is absolute bullshit. :)

And if that kind of animation isn't your thing, and you'd prefer some 8-bit, 80's style video-game animation, we have that too:

Other philosophers, such as Judith Butler, have thoughtfully expanded on Simone de Beauvoir's work, making important distinctions and contributions to our understanding of the construction of gender:

And here is Butler herself on the performative aspect of gender construction:

And if you're curious to learn some more about Beauvoir's life, work, philosophy and influence, there's a really nice introduction over at the BBC's In Our Time.

Roger Scruton - Why Beauty Matters

Beauty has been a central and enduring concept in the philosophy of art and aesthetics since its inception in ancient Greece. During the last few centuries, however, and due in large part to geopolitical, philosophical, religious, economic, and scientific revolutions, other aspects of art have come to dominate the aesthetic world.

Among the most radicaland, some might argue, the most perniciousis the postmodernist critique of objectivity in aesthetic judgments. This school of thought sees much art as an affirmation of European elitist attitudes driven by imperialistic and capitalistic motives. Unsurprisingly, a lot of postmodern conceptual art can best be understood as a reaction to the older and more traditional aesthetic norms.

Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton believes that postmodernism has gone too far, and that it has created a culture of fake originality where desecration and shock value for the sake of shock value have become the new norm. In his opinion, beauty must regain its former centrality in art because art must play a redeeming and inspiring role.

Let this be the start of a fascinating dialogue and conceptual exploration. :)

Jonathan Haidt - The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives

If you've kept up at all with the various cultural wars in this country, you're painfully aware of the various stereotypes that liberals and conservatives hold with regard to each other: conservatives are gun-totin' Jesus/Ronald Regan-worshipping, science-denying Chick-fil-A-loving racist, homophobic, chauvinist rednecks; and liberals are bleeding-heart politically-correct latte-sipping tree-hugging taxing-and-spending, welfare-promoting Prius-driving hippies... or something along  those lines.

Each ideology makes sense to its adherents because they share certain assumptions, values, attitudes, beliefs and worldviews that help to structure and organize their understanding of various issues in a coherent manner. The same is true of detractors, except that they share a different set of those conditions, which seem unintelligible to the first group.

Of course, we could continue to insult each other and show our sense of moral superiority and dominance till we're blue in the face, but if what we care about is bridging the divide and finding common ground so we could solve the various problems that afflict society and the world, then one of the best ways to do so, or so argues Jonathan Haidt in the following fascinating TEDTalk, is to begin to understand the moral dimensions on which each of these two major political ideologies is predicated.

Nicholas Christakis - The Sociological Science Behind Social Networks and Social Influence

Many attempts to explain human behavior tend to adopt some version or other of methodological individualism: the idea, roughly speaking, that social phenomena are to be explained with reference to the desires, interests, preferences, goals and actions of the constituent agents that make up a group. Ontologically, on this view, groups are nothing more than the sum of their parts. Notable advocates of this approach include Max Weber, Friedrich von Hayek and Karl Popper.

On the other hand, there are also various versions of methodological holism. The general common denominator for these views is that social phenomena are not reducible to mere explanations of their constituent members. For sociologist Émile Durkheim, for instance, there exist 'social facts' that go beyond merely individualistic explanations: some phenomena can only be described at the level of structures and systems (social, legal, ecological, demographic, architectural, historic, genealogical, religious, economic, geographic, etc.). This implies the possibility of introducing sociological interventions to try to remedy large-scale social problems that may seem otherwise intractable. These interventions may appear downright insane and counterintuitive sometimes (like installing blue lights to reduce crime and suicide rates, or painting prison walls pink to reduce violence and rapes), but that's not to say they don't work. I hate to link to Cracked.com, but since we're not doing scholarly research right now... fuck it.

Unless you have some training in this type of thing, methodological holism may seem at first glance like some vague notion referring to equally nebulous concepts unsuitable for rigorous scientific research and investigation, but once you see it in action in the fascinating introduction to sociology by Nicholas Christakis below, you'll probably end up wanting to major in sociology. :)

Magical balls? Nope. It's the Magnus Effect.

When you think of gravity, your first thought is probably just 'down,' but then you might remember Bill O'Reilly's "tides-go-in, tides-go-out" fiasco, and start thinking 'possibly horizontal.'

Then, you might start to think about flying planes and the interaction between lift, drag, pitch and yaw, and you might start to see how the interaction of gravity with other forces could imply 'up' under some specified conditions.

Finally, if you've ever 'bent-it-like-Beckham' playing soccer, or if you've ever spiraled a football or tossed a frisbee (or even a boomerang), then you probably already have some intuitive and pre-theoretical understanding of how spin can influence the path of a moving object sideways (assuming there's air resistance). And by the time you think about that, you realize that you kind of already understand what you're seeing in the gif above, even before you click on the video below, which is not to say the video won't have a few surprises of its own up its awesome sleeve. :)

Click on the physics tag for more awesomeness.

Agnes Török - Worthless

If you've ever watched "The Usual Suspects," you probably remember the line that "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." The same basic idea applies to our obsession with individualism and its concomitant concept of 'personal responsibility': you are free to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, to overcome any obstacles that are in your way, and to become whoever or whatever you want. Thus stated, it's a narrative of redemption and transcendence, bound to inspire anyone it touches.

But while this  attitude reveals the possibility of individual liberation and success, it also conceals the fact that the political, legal, cultural and economic system's logic and structure are rigged to perpetuate the inequalities upon which it necessarily depends. Instead, and because it's much easier to point to a particular individual instead of seeing the invisible structural connections and abstract philosophical presuppositions on which the entire system depends, it will be the individual who will be blamed for her failure to overcome the virtually impossible odds that were stacked against her from the outset.

If you've ever read C. Wright Mills' classic work "The Sociological Imagination," and understood the inescapable interaction between 'the personal troubles of milieu' and 'the public issues of social structure,' the following poem by performance artist Agnes Török, which powerfully exposes the insidious presuppositions embedded in the concepts of personal responsibility and austerity measures, should make you want to go back and re-awaken your own sociological understanding of the relationship between individual biography and collective history.

But maybe what we need is to go from this:

To this:

Key & Peele - Feminist Pirate Chantey

They may have a reputation for looting and pillaging, for murder and mutiny, and countless other crimes, but this band of progressive pirates can also sing a wickedly awesome tribute to the women they have loved...

Frederick Douglass - The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro

In 1852 Frederick Douglass delivered one of his most moving speeches, reflecting on the meaning that the celebration of the Declaration of Independence would have for people whose liberty was systematically denied them by their own government.

Thanks to modern time-travel technology, Frederick Douglass and Darth Vader... eerrr... James Earl Jones,  have joined forces to raise awareness and important questions about the discrepancy between the sublimity of our founding principles and the paltriness of our behavior.

The arc of justice may bend toward justice, but it could always use our help...

David Eagleman - Can We Create New Senses for Humans?

It's been a source of questions, awe and insight among philosophers for a long time to consider the fact that all mental representations are ultimately interpretations of electrical signals traveling through the brain. Yes, we may ordinarily think the original input is based on sounds and colors, though this itself is already an interpretation of the nature of such signals, but even if we ignore that question, the information relayed from the sense organs to the brain is ultimately digital electrical signals, the equivalent of 1's and 0's, switching on and off.

If all the information the brain ever receives is in the form of such digital discrete characters, how does the brain 'know' to interpret some as colors, others as sounds and others as scents? Sometimes when asking my students to define reality, I invite them to imagine what it might be like to cross-wire these sense modalities, such that you might take the optic nerves, say, and plug them into the auditory cortex, and so on. What would our picture of 'reality' 'look' (sound?) like then? And what might that suggest about the nature of perception and its relationship to reality?

Well, as it turns out, neuroscientist David Eagleman (who has been featured in this blog before discussing questions of law and responsibility in view of our growing understanding of consciousness and free will) has decided to take this sort of exercise from the merely hypothetical to the applied, showing that taking advantage of the software already running in our brains, it might be possible to produce new modalities of sense experience, and come to radically enhance our understanding of the natural, social and technological worlds. In fact, as he shows in this fascinating TEDTalk presentation, we already have a proof of principle. The only question left is how far we can go...

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Embed this blog on your site