Atlanta Protest 11.11.16

What happened last night in Atlanta with the protest that organized in the Historic Fourth Ward Park, next to the Masquerade club, and across from the recently developed Ponce City Market (cough, “gentrification”), and then proceeded to march through Atlanta, taking an indirect route past mlkjr-drive-protest-picGeorgia State University and the State Capital building? More importantly, why were people gathering and protesting? Why were they disrupting the traffic, tying up intersections? From a variety of sources, it’s quite clear that there is either confusion or outright misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what happened and why. Having been there from 6 pm to 9:30, this is my take. I know that I leave many issues out that the protest concerned (may I be forgiven for that).

Even though I went to bed later than usual last night (around 1:00 am), I was not able to sleep past 5:00 am. This is in part because I’m still struggling with the time change, and in part because the energy, the import, and the chants from last night’s protest and march echo in my mind. So, getting up I fed the animals and sat down listening to the National News broadcast on NPR. They reported on protests around the country. In Oregon, things were more chaotic than in Atlanta, as one person was shot and police used teargas and flash-bang grenades to try to break things up. Thankfully, that did not happen in Atlanta last night.

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The Philosophy Classroom: The Ultimate Safe Space

In the past weeks my newsfeed on Facebook has been filled with articles about safe spaces and trigger warnings. My impression from the headlines and comments alone is that most people are understanding these things differently than I and my colleagues do. Very briefly, I understand a trigger warning to be a kind of heads up that the topic to be discussed will go into graphic detail about a topic, e.g., rape, that may “trigger” past trauma. The point being to allow someone who is not yet ready to hear, much less discuss, their experience to bow out—for even if they are not explicitly the subject of the conversation, if the subject concerns their kind of traumatic experience, it is their experience under discussion. I have not had occasion to use trigger warnings in my philosophy classroom simply because I have not discussed topics that deal with trauma. There seems to be some confusion or worry that trigger warning are used to allow students to avoid hearing things that make them “uncomfortable.” However, if some use them that way, that is unfortunate, but I do not have reason to believe it is the norm. There is, of course, a huge chasm between the uncomfortable and the traumatic. I’m guessing that most teachers would catch on that something disingenuous is up if they gave a trigger warning and half the class walked out.

Similarly with safe spaces: there’s a ton of confusion. Unlike with trigger warnings, I have used the phrase, “I consider this classroom to be a safe space.” What I meant and what I said to my students was that that means people can speak up, share their thoughts and experiences—fully be themselves—without worrying about being ridiculed, made fun of, or otherwise made to feel bad for what they have said or who they are. It most definitely does not mean that we won’t be discussing difficult or controversial material or material that will make them uncomfortable. As a philosophy professor, I don’t believe I’m doing my job unless I’m leaving my students confused if not also uncomfortable. Confused because I believe that they cannot deepen their understanding of the world and themselves without first working through confusion. Uncomfortable because my philosophy classroom is not about telling them how things are, but rather challenging them with questions they wouldn’t otherwise be asked to consider. Continue reading

Philosophy as Good for Nothing: A Manifesto

1. “What is philosophy?” What kind of question is that? I’ve long found it fascinating and of huge importance that, “What is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question. This is not the same for other fields. That is, “What is science?” is not a scientific question. Perhaps if it is read as asking, “What do people called ‘scientists’ do?” it could be read as an empirical question, though that is not enough to make it scientific. I take the questions, “What is philosophy?” and “What is science?” to be asking about how we should think of them, which may or may not correspond to how anyone actually does think of them. This is not to say that there is a single correct answer to either question, though that in itself is controversial. However, if Wittgenstein’s denial of essences and his alternative picture of family resemblance has a place anywhere, I’d say it is here, with how we should conceive of philosophy (and most likely science).

As Wittgenstein realized, this could be seen as “taking the easy way out,” as it might seem to avoid the hard work of figuring out that one thing that philosophy is supposed to be. However, while I want to put forward a certain conception of philosophy—write its manifesto—without taking that to mean it is the only way philosophy should be conceived or pursued this does not mean that just anything goes. Much less that things will be easy. It is a potentially misleading analogy, but just as the possibility of a variety of legitimate interpretations of a poem does not mean that just any interpretation is of value, so with philosophy: not just anything will do.

2. There are many ways one can divide up the (meta-) philosophical terrain. A distinction that is vital for my purpose here is that between conceptions of philosophy that see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (at least in theory) and conceptions of philosophy that do not see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (theoretically or no). There are a variety of ways one might conceive of philosophy as “endable.” For example, in a well-known passage from 1931, Wittgenstein writes:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. (Culture and Value, Tran. Winch, 16)

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Not So Single-Pointed Philosophical Activity

Meditation, particularly in the tradition of Dōgen, is the paradigm for single-pointed activity. Whether you follow your breath or “just sit,” openly aware of the present moment in its entirety, Dōgen makes clear that you are not to judge whatever arises as good or bad. And when thoughts, images, desires, etc., arise, you let them go and return to the “object” of meditation. In so doing you are contributing to the re-habituation of your mind, getting “better” at letting go of everything that tries to pull you out of awareness of the present moment, letting go of judgments of good/bad, and thereby establish a foundationless foundation of calm in the ever fluxing and flowing waters of experience.

I want to leave aside issues here having to do with the sitting just-to-sit and not sitting so-as-to-achieve-a-future-enlightenment-experience. Rather, I’d like to continue with the theme of my earlier piece on single-pointed activity. That is, leaving aside the problematic nature of speaking of progress in the context of Dōgen’s Zen, the assumption behind continued, regular meditation practice seems to me to be that the more you do it, the better you will become at being present and letting go of what arises, letting go of habitual patterns of judging everything moment to moment in terms of its pleasantness, etc. In other words, the longer you do it, the calmer your mind will become, the less often thoughts will come up unbidden, until there is just the moment in all of its transitory, interdependent oneness.

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Religious Practice and the Limits of Philosophy

In reading Siderits’s excellent Buddhism as Philosophy I have come to realize the following problem. If a religion has its base in philosophy, if its central tenets are supposed to follow from the use of reason and argument, then none of its conclusions can ever be firm enough to ground religious practice. There will always be difficult objections and questions that cannot be answered in a way sufficient to allow one to say, “I know this is true and I will base my life on it.” On the other hand, if religious practice is grounded in faith or pragmatic results independent of argument, then one has no reason to believe in the metaphysical claims made by the religion.

Consider the arguments. I take it that the arguments for God’s existence and a soul are familiar enough in their inconclusiveness. So I won’t go over them. But Buddhism is a different story. Central to Buddhism is the idea that there is no substantial self who is the subject of experience. Whatever you take the parts of a human to be, they do not form a whole that could be such a self. The self that we refer to by names and pronouns is a necessary fiction. On Siderits’s reading of Buddhism, the Buddhist view regarding ontology is mereological reductionism. Reality contains no wholes; it only contains indivisible “parts.” Siderits covers the arguments very well. But if you are at all knowledgeable about the debates concerning part-whole relations, then you will see objections right and left to the arguments and their premises. Yet, these are the considerations that are supposed to ground the Buddhist worldview and practice. Given how contentious these very abstract arguments are, how can they form the foundation for the way in which one interacts with the world? I’m claiming they cannot. Why? Because if you are properly intellectually honest, you will not be convinced by the arguments on either side. If you are convinced by the arguments on either side, then that is likely because of a bias for or against the sides in question. That is a strong claim, and one that invites resistance! It’s important to note, I think, that this latter contention doesn’t requires that all philosophical debate lead to aporia in the way it often seems to with Socrates in some of Plato’s dialogues. That is, aporia would be sufficient but not necessary for not fully affirming a theory when doing philosophy.

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What’s Wrong With Cartesian Reasoning? Part I

There are many reasons to read Nietzsche. Whether you agree with his substantive views, taking him seriously will help to keep you intellectually honest. An example comes from Beyond Good and Evil, Part One: On the Prejudices of Philosophers, §5:

What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are – how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray; in short, their childishness and childlikeness – but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish – and talk of “inspiration”); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of “inspiration” – most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract – that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize “truths” – and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself.


According to an interesting website authored by Hugo Mercier, “Current philosophy and psychology are dominated by what can be called a classical, or ‘Cartesian’ view of reasoning. Even though this view goes back at least to some classical Greek philosophers, its most famous exposition is probably in Descartes.” This essay is Part I in a critical assessment of Mercier’s claims as outlined on the above website. Mercier contrasts the Cartesian view discussed with a dialogical view of reasoning that is supposed to fit best with empirical evidence and our evolutionary heritage. I will address it in more detail in Part II. All quotes below are from Mercier’s website. I question some of the claims as I quote them. Those objections are in brackets. I then go into a more detailed and general critique of the claims.

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Why So Many Disagreements Are Just So Damn Intractable

In a recent essay, I made a distinction between what I called epistemic reasons and purely causal reasons. The former are potentially truth preserving (capable of providing epistemic justification) the latter are not even potentially truth preserving (and thus are incapable of providing epistemic justification). In this essay, I’m going to appeal to the same basic distinction regarding reasons that do and do not provide epistemic justification, but I’m going to refer to them simply as epistemic reasons (ERs) and non-epistemic reasons (non-ERs).

In the course of reading the first chapter of MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, it occurred to me that we could use the ER/non-ER distinction to help explain disagreements about contentious issues concerning ethics, for example.

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Philosophy, Poetry, and Truth

My friend Jennie and I used to argue often about the different ways that poetry and philosophy go about examining the world and attempting to speak truly about it.  She always claimed that there were certain truths, usually of a spiritual nature, or if not spiritual, then about particular deep aspects of life and nature, that poetry was better at investigating and expressing than philosophy.  I’m not in a position to give her reasons for these claims.  And I don’t think she was right in the way that she thought she was.  However, I do think that there is perhaps an important difference between poetry and philosophy concerning access to truth (a general difference, and not one that is meant to admit of no exceptions); I will try to articulate it below.

First, I do not have much patience for the idea of ineffable truths, simply because I take it that truth is a property of sentences used in particular contexts, and therefore if something is ineffable, then it cannot be formulated into sentences, and it therefore cannot admit of truth or falsity.  So I don’t think that it is the business of philosophy or poetry to try to show or gesture at ineffable truths.

I do not think that philosophy and poetry are necessarily separated by reason or argument; that is, I do not think that reason and argument belong to philosophy but not to poetry.  That is not to say, of course, that every poem presents an argument.  And it seems likely to me that the argument of a poem does not consist of the same kind of moves found in a philosophical argument.  Some poetry (I certainly won’t speak for all poetry) seems to me to work because of the way it directs one’s thoughts, attitudes, and emotions, often directing them toward ordinary “objects” in subtly new ways and in such a way that one arrives at new thoughts, attitudes, and emotions.  Through a serious of such movements, each of which draws on the reader’s background of ideas, emotions, dispositions, desires, experiences, etc., in order to draw the reader forward and in, a poem might present a kind of argument for seeing something in a particular way; that new insight, or whatever it should be called, is a kind of conclusion.

Insofar as philosophy operates on a more singular plain of categorical, propositional, predicate logic, philosophical arguments can typically be reconstructed explicitly from their texts.  Importantly, this reconstruction can be done without injury to the argument.  I don’t mean to deny the power of persuasion that might come with a style of writing.  But I think that many philosophers would recognize a distinction between a well reasoned argument and a persuasive one.  I can imagine a philosopher saying, “I see that the argument is valid and the premises appear to all be true, but I’m still not inclined to accept the conclusion.”

An important result that comes out of the above differences between philosophy and poetry is that poetry might allow one to arrive at a certain conclusion that could not be arrived at in the same way through philosophical reasoning.  That is, while we might be able to explicitly restate the point of a poem in paraphrase, we will not—or perhaps the weaker “may not”—be moved to accept the point as true if all we have access to is the paraphrase.  The “logic” or “reasoning” of the poem itself is required if one is to have access to the truth in such a way that one is moved to accept it.  I’m not ruling out the possibility that some of the “conclusions” of poems could be argued for in an explicitly philosophical manner.  But even then, such reasoning may not provide the right kind of epistemic access to the truth.

All of that is in the abstract.  I will try to look for an example to illustrate my point.