Category Archives: Public Philosophy

Avoiding the Siren Call

Halfway through this lecture by Stanley Cavell, I stopped listening to it. It is not just that the lecture comes across – to me and to many others – as boring and self-involved. More than that, I had a moment of enough is enough. Not only do I not feel like listening more. I will not listen more. It was a flashback to fifteen years ago when, though at the time I poured through his writings, I stopped going to his classes. I wasn’t going to put myself through it anymore.

Not put myself through what anymore? What am I feeling when watching the lecture? There is a pain, a sense of frustration. A feeling that I am torturing myself by listening to this. But why?

It is the sense of a siren call, a pleasant, melodious, hopeful song luring me into its orbit even as ultimately it leads only to my entrapment and an intellectual dead end. That what I am listening to is really, for me, a mirage, a false hope, an illusion of a future at the end of the talk.

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Creating the Future

In this lecture, Alain Badiou suggests the task of philosophy is to avoid two extremes. One extreme – abstract universality – is to state in abstract and theoretical terms what unifies all people. Badiou identifies this with science, technology, business, capitalism. The other extreme – particularity – resists abstract universality by focusing on bounded groups, such as nationalism, religious fundamentalism, racism, and so on. The task of philosophy is to thread the needle and create, what one might call, universality of particulars, where people discover their shared universality through an openness to each others’ particularity.

For Badiou philosophy – the universality of particularity – is always oriented towards the future. Particularity is focused on the past: it says we need to hold on to the communal bonds which are being dissolved by the push towards universality. In contrast, abstract universality is focused on the present: it says we have discovered the universal categories (evolution, cognitive science, the rational foundations of morality, etc.) and now the task is mainly to apply them to our situation. But for Badiou philosophy is neither about preservation of the past nor sustaining the present, but about creating the future.

It is evident through the talk that fundamentalist religion is particularity and the past. About an hour into the talk, he suggests that analytic philosophy is abstract universality and the present. This leads to the striking claim that if analytic philosophy dominates, then creativity and philosophy and love and, indeed the essence of humanity, will come to an end. On this picture, analytic philosophy succumbed to technicism and lost itself in scientism.

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New Age Philosophy and Academic Philosophy

Here is an interesting snippet of an interview between Deepak Chopra and Joshua Knobe:

Seeing the interview is like seeing two people speaking different languages all the while hoping, based on the similarity in sounds of some of the words, that they are speaking the same language and so are actually communicating.

Part of the fascination of the interaction is that it is between between two people high up in institutional structures which normally don’t engage with each other: new-age philosophy and academic philosophy. In one way the new-age philosophy has a greater grip on the public, since most people don’t have a sense for the circles Knobe moves in. In another way academic philosophy has a greater grip on the public, because the institution Knobe belongs to (Yale) has a greater grip on the public than do structures of new age philosophy.

Importantly, both structures aim for, and presume to speak from, a universal space of philosophy. Both Chopra and Knobe are trying, in different ways, to make philosophy connect to the public by wrapping philosophy in the language of science: Chopra as a doctor, Knobe as an experimenter.

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Philosophy and Capitalism

Normally academics shudder at the thought that academia is getting engulfed in market forces. There are protests of how the dignity and majesty of the intellectual life, and especially of the humanities, are going to be rendered profane if even academia is seen through the lens of capitalism. No, this is not a space about buying and selling; no, here we don’t primarily interact as customers; no, here we interact in terms of our shared humanity which is more fundamental than our relations in the market place!

This is a fascinating response. It depends on a fundamental divide between the academic space and the market space. On this view, ideally before a person enters the market place as an employee or a business owner, or any other capitalist identity, their consciousness needs to be first raised to care about more than just making it in the market. They need to be made into critical thinkers and citizens.

Where can this happen? It can’t be a space which is itself mired in capitalism, for that does not afford the necessary reflective distance from capitalism to gain a humanistic perspective. So it has to be a space set over and above market forces, and this is academia. The medieval colleges were literally set apart from the town. Contemporary colleges no longer are literally set apart that way (though a Cornell or a Williams might feel as if they were), but, the idea goes, they are conceptually set apart nonetheless. They can be in downtown Manhattan or right next to the inner cities of West Philadelphia, but in principle they are not caught up in either the wealth of Manhattan or the poverty of West Philadelphia. They stand apart with a critical gaze on capitalism, and focus instead on cultivating the humanity of the students.

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Immigration and Community

“Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” is a fantastic essay by Wendell Berry (thanks to Cathy Legg for pointing me to it). It was published in 1992, which is amazing because that is only four years after I moved to this country with my family. Meaning: many of the issues I am only now starting to be conscious of, others such as Berry have been addressing since I was a teenager. It is a nice experience, central to feeling part of a community, to know that the problems one identifies with are not unique to oneself or one’s generation. Reading Berry’s essay I felt this very strongly, even though I don’t fully agree with it.

The central insight of Berry’s essay is what I will call the primacy of the community. Berry argues that the public domain in America has become identified with the market forces of capitalism, and this has resulted in a kind of bleaching of substantively shared values from the public domain. He writes:

The indispensible form that can intervene between public and private interests is that of community. The concerns of public and private, republic and citizen, necessary as they are, are not adequate for the shaping of human life. Community alone, as principle and as fact, can raise the standards of local health (ecological, economic, social, and spiritual) without which the other two interests will destroy one another. (Pg. 119)

In the essay Berry uses the examples of sex and freedom to show, very convincingly to my mind, how there are forms of objective values and shared modes of life which are lost when the pubic domain is identified with a view-from-nowhere type of disembodied neutrality.

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The Hard Problem of Public Philosophy

Right now public philosophy in America is a desert. A land barren of rich vegetation and plentiful water. Academic philosophy is like a neighboring land of resources, green and lush – or, at least, that is how it seems to itself. Academic philosophers, like Nussbaum, Singer, Dennett and many others, who engage in public philosophy are like visitors to the desert from that neighboring land, bringing some of the plants from their land in the hopes of creating new pastures in the desert.

When Tania Lombrozo writes, “We need philosophers engaged in public life — and a public wiling to engage them”, she is exhorting more academic philosophers to go into the desert and plant their crops there as well. And she is exhorting the public in the desert to give the new crops a chance to grow.

But there is something Lombrozo and others are over looking when they argue for academic philosophers entering the public arena. They treat it as if the reason most academic philosophers are not doing so is a matter of weakness of the will: either negligence on the academics’ part, or a failure to pay attention on the public’s part. Being a matter of weakness of the will, exhortation or a call to arms is what is seen to move the will in the right direction.

The problem, however, is deeper. A gambler who vows to not gamble any more, but runs to the casino at the next available chance – that is weakness of the will. A mathematician who is not able to solve a difficult problem – that is lack of knowledge, not weakness of the will. The academic philosopher mainly lacks knowledge of what a sustained and helpful engagement with the public can look like. What can sustained public philosophy be? That is a hard problem, which requires, to be sure, a strong will and motivation, but it mainly and firstly requires intellectual imagination and theoretical insight.

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