The Presocratics

Anyone who's ever contemplated Raphael's celebrated painting The School of Athens knows that the painting centers, quite literally, around Plato and Aristotle (the former pointing up toward his transcendent Realm of the Forms, while the latter attempts to ground his understanding of reality on a much more naturalistic conception). A quick glance also reveals a few other obvious personalities: Socrates, Diogenes the Cynic, Pythagoras, and Euclid (or perhaps Archimedes?). But if you look even closer, you can see that this painting is also paying homage to the Presocratics, those thinkers who dared to imagine the cosmos might be intelligible to human beings, and who set out to prove it.


In the process of attempting to understand and explain the world, these thinkers came up with many of the concepts that are still highly influential today: the uniformity of nature, mathematics as the foundation/expression of all reality, mind as a potential cosmic principle, atoms as the basic constituents of the universe, explanatory reductionism, physical necessity, methodological naturalism, reductio ad absurdum, materialism, teleological explanations, anthropomorphic skepticism, the questioning of the nature/reality of space and time, presentism and the block universe, the difference between appearance and reality, and many, many others.

With many thanks to philosophy professor Peter Adamson and his fantastic podcast, History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, the following selection of audio clips provides a great and accessible introduction to the thoughts of these daring and intellectually creative thinkers. It is because of the move from mythos to logos begun by the Presocratics that it has been possible for human beings to unshackle ourselves from the chains of superstition and ignorance to which we were subject before there was any philosophy or science, and to come to realize that though our knowledge may always limited, it is nevertheless not only possible and worth pursuing, but perhaps a delightful moral obligation.

It all started with Thales, who shocked the world with his successful prediction of the solar eclipse of May 28th 585 BCE, and who said that "water is best":




Once the spark of logos had been kindled, Anaximander would think up his cosmic principle of apeiron (the indefinite, boundless, infinite), and Anaximenes would offer up the first idea of a scientific mechanism to explain change:




It would not take long for Xenophanes to recognize that our point of view can influence our perception and our judgments, and that we therefore have a natural predisposition to impiously anthropomorphize our ideas about the nature of the gods:




And then, in a truly odd mix of uber rationalism and mysticism, Pythagoras would argue that number is the fundamental reality of the cosmos, and would warn to stay away from beans!




Do things really exist? If everything we see changes, as experiences implies, then perhaps 'things' are actually processes, and everything is in flux. There is no being, only becoming, or so thought Heraclitus:




But why trust the senses when we know they are prone to deceiving us? Pure reason, on the other hand, is objective, and it works independently of our biases. And pure reason implies that change, of any kind, is logically impossible. Parmenides, the founder of the Eleatic school, argued that there cannot be any becoming, only being:




And if you thought he was just being cheeky, his students Zeno and Melissus set out to prove their master right with a set of paradoxes that continue to perplex, delight and frustrate thinkers of all stripes down to our own day:




So how do we reconcile being, which seems to be the necessary presupposition for any kind of possible predication, with becoming, which is what our sensory experience tells us is a basic fact of the world in which we live? Perhaps a combination of indestructible, indivisible and unchangeable particles, atoms, moving around the empty space of the void, and organizing themselves in countless collective configurations? According to Leuccipus and Democritus, this compromise would preserve the strengths of the Heraclitean and the Eleatic schools without being subject to their weaknesses:




But whence order? According to Anaxagors, perhaps behind all the regularity of the cosmos, and especially behind the construction of living organisms, there is a teleological principle of Mind responsible for organizing it:




Pythagoras may have started a religion, but Empedocles declared himself a god, and jumped into a volcano to prove it! (Unsuccessfully, I'm afraid.) Still, it is from Empedocles that we get the ancient conception of chemistry: air, earth, fire and water. Everything we see around us, he thought, is just different combinations of these elements (or roots, as he called them), mixed through the cosmic principles of Love and Strife. Oh, and we also get a bit of a precursor to the idea (not the theory) of evolution:




Well, when you take Empedocles seriously, you start to understand why so much of ancient medicine was concerned with finding the right balance between the four fluids (or humours) contained within the human body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile:




And finally, from the Sophists we get an attempt to question the validity and limits of the kinds of claims made through language and on the basis of our experience. Doesn't the form of our perception, as well as the form of our linguistic expression, in some sense influence or determine the nature of our conclusions? But if so, is objective knowledge possible?




It is in this intellectual context that a brilliant and charismatic thinker would emerge, and who would eventually become the embodiment of philosophical brilliance, humility and principle that has made its way through the centuries. That rascal was, of course, Socrates.

President Obama's Farewell Address

As his presidency sadly comes to an end, President Obama delivered last night what is sure to become one of the most powerful and memorable speeches in his already admirable history of powerful and memorable speeches.

In a time when democracy, justice, freedom, equality and human rights have come under threat in America—as a right-wing administration inspired by unabashed hatred, divisiveness, racism, xenophobia and greed prepares to take office—President Obama's message is a sober and thoughtful reminder that this experiment in self-governing is not a foregone conclusion but a process that requires permanent work, vigilance and cooperation.




Thank you for being an inspiration to us all, President Obama. We are truly going to miss you...

John Berger - Ways of Seeing

Art critic John Berger's recent death has left a huge void in the world of art appreciation. While his career prompted numerous controversies and instances of outrage and public condemnation, Berger's attacks on what sometimes amounts to the condescending and elitist attitude of his own profession helped popularize the appreciation of art. His 1972 BBC documentary series Ways of Seeing, as well as its subsequent eponymous book, helped bring the world of thoughtful art appreciation to an entire generation of people who may have otherwise never gotten interested in the fine arts. Unlike conventional forms of art criticism and appreciation—which tend to focus primarily on concepts such as form, function, craft, materials, beauty, the sublime, or on the history of various schools of art—Berger tended to provide a more humanistic, sociological and philosophical introduction to how to decipher the ideology hiding behind the surface of the canvas. Though it has been used for centuries to promote the interests of those in power, Berger believes that art's true function is one of liberation.

The first episode of Ways of Seeing—based on philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin's classic work, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction—explores the impact of photography on our aesthetic experience of works from the past. On the one hand, new technological means of reproduction have helped to democratize the appreciation of works of art that had previously only been accessible to wealthy elites. On the other, it has also severed the work of great artists from their historical context, thereby changing their original meanings. To look at a photograph of a painting at home or on a screen is a fundamentally different experience from that of looking at the painting housed in a church, the home of a wealthy aristocrat, or in a museum, and the difference matters.





The second episode—an exploration of The Male Gaze, a concept originally posited by film theorist Laura Mulvey in her groundbreaking article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema—starts with the following intriguing (and now famous) observation:
Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. [This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.] 
Combining aspects of Marxist, feminist and phenomenological theories, Berger makes a distinction between a naked and a nude, and shows how much of the female nude in the European tradition perpetuates certain misogynistic paradoxes through which women are simultaneously revered and reviled, sexualized and denied their own sexuality, made the objects of desire, but denied the possibility of being autonomous subjects of experience, and in all cases, dehumanized, scorned, shamed, belittled. The discussion that follows at the end provides a powerful demonstration of the effects that this tradition has had not only on the place and role that women have played in society, but even on their own self-understanding.





The third episode explores the way in which oil painting enabled an unprecedented degree of realism in European art. Along with this realism, however, and the physicality and texture such paintings were able to convey, oil paintings also helped to promote an economic ideology that celebrated the wealth and status of the individuals who commissioned such works of art, while simultaneously concealing the exploitation and dehumanization on which such wealth was often based.





Finally, the last episode attempts to demonstrate the ways in which advertising, particularly through the medium of photography, represents an extension of the artistic tradition, though one that reverses the context: instead of portraying the reality of wealthy individuals and their possessions, advertising conveys an imagined and idealized reality that preys on our fears and insecurities, and attempts to turns us into consumers.





Rest in peace, John Berger.

Some Thoughts and Feelings on the Aftermath of the Election



When I saw that anger, hate and bigotry were going to win two nights ago, I had to unplug for a while. I needed to find the strength to apologize to my students, to tell them, to confess to them really, that we have collectively failed them, that their lives and safety are now at risk, that the forces of pent up anger and resentment, carefully and systematically cooked for decades by the conservative propaganda machine that has normalized making up paranoid and ignorant conspiracy theories, now control all branches of government, and that it's de-facto open season on people who don't look like them, who don't believe or worship like them, who don't have the same body parts they do, who don't love like them.

I didn't know how I could protect and comfort my students while simultaneously admitting I'm genuinely afraid for their well-being and their safety. Would it be fair to give them what I consider to be false hope? How could I reassure my female students that they will be safe in their bodily and sexual integrity from men who define their masculinity through domination and force, and who can conceive of women as nothing more than collections of body parts to use, abuse and discard? How could I tell them that, with a straight face, when we just elected a self-described sexual predator as Commander-in-Chief? How could I tell them that their reproductive rights won't be overturned and taken away from them when the Supreme Court vacancy is filled by a president who has publicly claimed women ought to be punished for trying to exercise their constitutionally-guaranteed reproductive rights? How could I reassure my Muslim students that they won't be randomly harassed and attacked by angry mobs when they are simply trying to peacefully go about their day? How could I reassure my undocumented students that their families won't be suddenly broken up at some point when they least expect it? How could I reassure my gay or transgender students that they won't be beaten by angry men who can't understand their love, their identity or their sexuality, or that their right to marry the person they love will no longer be guaranteed and protected? How could I reassure my black students that they have nothing to fear, when I'm utterly terrified, actually shaking in my bones to the point where I can't even think the thought without crying, that... that there will be lynchings before too long?

Part of me wanted to hope against hope that I'm simply overreacting, that things won't be as bad as that. But on the morning after the election, one of my students' grandmother, an African-American Muslim woman who lives in the South, woke up to a burning cross in her yard, and to one of her eight dogs, noose around its lifeless neck, hanging from a tree. This is not an isolated incident. Hate crimes are already spiking throughout the country. This is the new America we must somehow manage to navigate our way across now.

We have just given the White House to a self-described sexual predator, to an ignorant, stupid, hateful, narcissistic, thin-skinned racist who sees the world as a zero-sum game in which one person's success necessarily requires another person's utter destruction, to someone who is constitutionally incapable of respecting views which he can't understand... and who seems incapable of understanding almost anything that requires to be explained in complex sentences made up with anything above a third-grade level vocabulary, to someone for whom success means domination, to someone who feels the visceral need to surround himself with sycophants who won't challenge his toxic and simplistically ignorant worldview, to someone who has confessed to fantasizing about revenge and the humiliation of others, and who will now have the full force of the American government to do that. The man who doesn't have the self-control not to go on hateful and misogynistic slut-shaming tweets at three o'clock in the morning will now have access to the nuclear codes.

I hope the systems of checks and balances—created precisely to prevent demagogues like Trump from exerting their uncontrolled will on the rest of the world—will hold. I hope that Congress and the Supreme Court will stand up to him if... no, when he tries to violate the very same Constitution he will facetiously swear to uphold a few months from now...

But I won't hold my breath. These will be the same people, after all, who already stood behind him when he vociferously accused Latino immigrants of being murderers, drug dealers and rapists; who stood behind him when he called for a complete shutdown on Muslims entering this country; who stood behind him as he has mocked people with disabilities; who stood behind him when he repeatedly and relentlessly objectified and body-shamed women; these will be the same people who said nothing about the fact that his vice-presidential running mate is someone who has attempted to legalize discrimination against the gay community; these will be the same people who stood behind a man who has been charged with housing discrimination against African-Americans, who has taken out full spreads in the media calling for the execution of black youths who were charged with a crime it was subsequently proved they did not commit, who has instigated and encouraged his followers to commit violence against black protesters at his rallies, who publicly questioned whether our first African-American president was actually an American; these are the same people who stood behind him when he viciously and mockingly called refugee children snakes and reptiles; these are the same people who have watched him reduce the value of women to nothing more substantial than their sex appeal; these are the same people who still supported him even after the tapes in which he boasted about being able to get away with sexual assault came out. "I'm voting for Trump, but I'm not endorsing him" is  an endorsement! It's just an endorsement that makes you feel good about yourself without actually doing anything to stand up to him.

There is no real evidence that conservatives will suddenly stand up to him when he has even more power, not simply because they're cowards, but—and let's just be honest about this, shall we?—because Trump actually represents most of their core beliefs. Conservatives have been using coded language and policies to mask their racism, their sexism, their homophobia and xenophobia for decades. The party of 'personal responsibility' always manages to blame everyone else, especially people of color and immigrants, for anything that's wrong with this country. When it comes to their own faults, Republicans never take responsibility. Sarah Palin's son is arrested  for domestic abuse? Blame President Obama. You lost your job because the corporation you work for outsourced your job to China? Blame Mexicans. Your local ecosystem was destroyed by toxic waste dumped by a factory? Blame too much regulation on American businesses. It doesn't have to make sense; it simply needs to be blamed on others. As anybody who has studied American history knows, the misdirection is nothing new. Ever since the "Southern Strategy" was thought up, Republicans have gotten better and better at masking their intolerance under the rhetoric of 'law & order,' 'family values,' 'traditional marriage,' 'religious liberty,' 'the war on drugs,' and countless other euphemisms that communicate and perpetuate their intolerance while giving them the protection of plausible deniability. Trump's political genius ultimately consisted in being too stupid to understand the subtleties of using coded language, and in doing so he provided a megaphone for all the pent up anger and racism that the Republican Party has been carefully cultivating for decades. Trump isn't an anomaly for the Republican Party: he's the ultimate and crystallized embodiment and expression of their core values.

As I walked and cried on the night of the election, wondering how I would face my students the next day and protect them, I thought about the millions of little boys and girls who went to sleep that night, hopeful that when they woke up the next morning, they would have proof that it is possible in America for a woman to be President, that they would know that adults stood up to hate, anger and bigotry, and I thought about the kind of strength that their parents would now have to muster up to share the bad news with those heartbroken children. How do you explain to your little girl that, in America, an incredibly qualified woman who has dedicated her entire adult life to public service can still lose to an unqualified and hateful ignoramus? What kind of message about the worth of women does that send little boys? In times like these, when hope is gone, it seems as if the hardest thing to do is to be strong enough to have enough strength to share with others, but that's precisely what we must do, isn't it? But how do we find that strength?

I don't have any answers. I don't really know how to make things better. All I can do at this point is recommend, and plead, that we become better and kinder people to each other. That we respectfully and compassionately listen to the voices of those who are different from us, even if... especially if we can't immediately understand their point of view, that we stand up with and for our brothers and sisters of other colors, other faiths, other orientations, other identities, other backgrounds. That we consider how our choices might ultimately affect others, that we think beyond our intentions and also consider the impact of our choices, especially on those who will eventually bear the brunt of the weight of those choices. That we lend our voices to the voiceless, and our strength to the powerless. I don't know that it will be enough, but I do know that we must try. The safety of the people who make up this wonderfully eclectic country, and the very values and principles on which this experiment in self-governance and democracy is based, depend upon it...

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, and the Democratic Party went from White Supremacy to Obama

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.





Of course, the Democratic Party has undergone an evolution of its own, starting as the party of white supremacy, and eventually becoming the party that would elect the first African-American president:





Go home, America! You're drunk. :p

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.




Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Embed this blog on your site