The Philosophy of Marvel's Daredevil

Everyone is familiar with the most obvious tropes of superhero comics: exciting action sequences, skin-fitting superhero outfits, the over-sexualization of strong female characters (or the need to emphasize the chastity and helplessness of damsels in distress), the perennial struggle between the forces of good vs evil, origin stories and haunting painful childhood memories, futile attempts at balancing one's public and secret identities, etc.

What isn't always obvious is that good comics often represent fascinating and thoughtful explorations of deep philosophical questions. These may not always be explicitly stated, but the multiplicity of circumstances and choices confronting the various characters, especially when these scenarios are slight variations on a more general theme, eventually make it impossible not to see the philosophical questions, and their complexity, at work.

If you simply watch the one-minute opening theme for the latest incarnation of Daredevil, for instance, you will notice that in addition to its beautiful aesthetic value, its creators have highlighted and juxtaposed some of the most important themes the show will explore: A world forged in blood. Wealth as the result of crime and corruption. Red as the color of blood, as a representation of loss, of sacrifice, of redemption... but redemption through a devil? A blind man, a red catholic devil meting out justice in the middle of the night? Outside the confines of the law and the light of due process? In the name of Justice? In the name of God? In the name of sublimated revenge and righteous indignation? And who exactly is blind? Justice? The vigilante? The world? Lady Justice and Matt Murdock shown not only blind but blindfolded? Does the blindness represent fairness and objectivity? Perhaps self-delusion? Does blindness represent an inability, or, perhaps, an unwillingness to see?

So if you'd like to peer beneath the surface and get a deeper appreciation of a few of the philosophical questions explored in Daredevil, as well as some of its religious, cultural and aesthetic influences and allusions, you could do worse than to sit back and enjoy the following short intro from the awesome folks at Wisecrack:

How the Republican Party went from Lincoln to Trump

When accused of promoting racist beliefs of policies, Republicans usually argue that it was their party who freed the slaves and passed the first meaningful legislation to extend equal rights to all men, and that it was Democrats who stood against abolition and on the Confederate side. This is incontrovertible historical fact.

Of course, what often goes unsaid is that things have changed significantly since the time of Lincoln, and those changes have to be understood in their larger historical context. All too often, unfortunately, we tend to get distracted by demagogues, by the latest political and ideological fashions, by the prejudices of 'common sense,' etc., and we lose sight, as a consequence, of the need to educate ourselves on the historical evolution of the many factors that have contributed to the problems we face today.

Complex and entrenched problems are not amenable to simplistic solutions. They require for their solution, at the very least, a recognition and correct diagnosis and understanding of their historical, sociological and philosophical context. But we must know the context. In that spirit, and although I highly recommend you pick up some history books, here is a short animated introduction to how the Party of Lincoln eventually became the Party of Trump.

While there's no discussion of important factors such as the "Southern Strategy," or the history of the conflict between the NRA and the Black Panthers, or of the influence of neoliberal ideology and its impact on economic inequality, or the racist backlash against the election of the first African-American President in 2008, I hope this quick animation has whetted your curiosity and intellectual appetite, and has inspired to do some further research on your own.

Simon Blackburn - Plato's Republic

The term Utopia wasn't invented until 1516, when Thomas More published his now classic rendition of an ideal society. But the general concept had already taken place almost two thousand years earlier, when Plato wrote his Republic, a philosophical masterpiece exploring the nature, importance, need, justification and maintenance of a just society. Along the way, however, Plato devotes a substantial amount of pages to considering and proposing various arguments, allegories and thought experiments concerning issues as diverse as the nature of justice, the theory of Forms, the role of philosophers in society (hint: they're in charge), the importance of being an ethical person, the relationship between art and the state, a communal conception of parenting, arguments regarding equal opportunities based on sex/gender, and many, many more.

That's not to say that there haven't been powerful critiques of Plato's Republic. It has been credited, for instance, and by philosophers as influential as Karl Popper, of paving the philosophical road to totalitarian states such as those embodied by Hitler and Stalin, and with providing justification for the violation of individual rights in the name of the state. And in the following excerpt from Simon Blackburn's delightful book on Plato's Republic, narrator Simon Vance masterfully conveys these fascinating ideas with the sophistication, the pathos and the elegance for which he has become one of the most influential, memorable and coveted readers of our generation in the English-speaking world.

Introduction to Symbolic & Philosophical Logic

Although almost every activity human beings engage in requires some degree of reasoning, we're often sloppy at it, we seldom (if ever!) think about the thinking process itself, and we are really good at tying ourselves into conceptual knots and logical contradictions. For more than two thousand years, however, philosophers have been hard at work trying to understand, organize, classify and perfect the reasoning process, searching for and discovering the rules and principles of logical necessity, devising methods for ascertaining the validity of logical inferences, and testing the very limits of reasoning.

The following Prezi is a compilation of a number of lectures by philosopher Mark Thorsby. These lectures provide a great introduction to deductive symbolic reasoning in:
  1. Categorical logic (syllogisms and sorites), 
  2. Propositional logic (and natural deduction), and 
  3. Predicate (or 1st-order) logic.
If you've ever been curious about symbolic logic, but felt intimidated by the scariness of its symbols and notation, fear no more: these lectures are nicely organized and highly accessible, no matter your academic background or level of education.

These ideas may seem abstract and academic, and there's something to that charge, but they are also the ideas that make the modern world possible: our scientific knowledge, the technology on which our very survival depends, the political and economic systems through which we organize our social lives, our ability to reason about ethical questions, our very ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings to each other, and many other important domains, all depend on our ability to think clearly and reason properly...

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...

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