Archive for June, 2014

Let’s Get Cooking!

What could I tell you, my lady, of the secrets of nature that I have discovered while cooking? I observed that an egg unifies and fries in butter or oil, but to the contrary dissolves in syrup; that in order to keep sugar liquid, it suffices to throw on it a very little bit of water flavored with quince or another bitter fruit; that the yolk and white of the same egg when separated and combined with sugar have an opposite effect, and one different from when they are both used together. I do not mean to tire you with such foolishness, which I only recount to give you a complete picture of my nature and because I think it will amuse you. But, my lady, what can women know except philosophy of the kitchen? Lupercio Leonardo has said it well: it is possible to philosophize while preparing dinner. As I often say on observing these little things, if Aristotle had cooked, he would have written much more.

–Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, c. 1690


Or consider this:

Or consider the example of cookery. It might be supposed that an ignorant man, some edible materials, and a cookery book compose together the necessities of a self-moved (or concrete) activity called cooking. But nothing is further from the truth. The cookery book is not an independently generated beginning from which cooking can spring; it is nothing more than an abstract of somebody’s knowledge of how to cook: it is the stepchild, not the parent of the activity. The book, in its tum, may help to set a man on to dressing a dinner, but if it were his sole guide he could never, in fact, begin: the book speaks only to those who know already the kind of thing to expect from it and consequently bow to interpret it.

Now, just as a cookery book presupposes somebody who knows how to cook, and its use presupposes somebody who already knows how to use it, and just as a scientific hypothesis springs from a knowledge of how to conduct a scientific investigation and separated from that knowledge is powerless to set empiricism profitably to work, so a political ideology must be understood, not as an independently premeditated beginning for political activity, but as knowledge (abstract and generalized) of a concrete manner of attending to the arrangements of a society. The catechism which sets out the purposes to be pursued merely abridges a concrete manner of behaviour in which those purposes are already hidden. It does not exist in advance of political activity, and by itself it is always an insufficient guide. Political enterprises, the ends to be pursued, the arrangements to be established (all the normal ingredients of a political ideology), cannot be premeditated in advance of a manner of attending to the arrangements of a society; what we do, and moreover what we want to do, is the creature of how we are accustomed to conduct our affairs. Indeed, it often reflects no more than a dis­covered ability to do something which is then translated into an authority to do it.

–Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays


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Essay Prize Offered by the Royal Institute of Philosophy

You can find the details here. The question this year is:

‘What is philosophy? How is it possible?

What can it expect to achieve?’

Entries may address the topic in a variety of ways, and could ask what makes a problem or an approach philosophical.  Are there particular subject areas for philosophy? Have these changed over time? Are they different in different traditions? Is progress achievable in philosophy? How might progress be assessed?  If there has been philosophical progress, where is it to be found? If not, why is this?  And if progress in any non-contentious sense is not possible, does philosophy still have a point?

The prize is £2,500. If you can answer this set of questions adequately, you deserve the money!


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Another one of those things

Here’s another one of those things I need to keep in mind but which you don’t:

Formal ontologists must constantly be on their guard against simplistic attempts to read ontological distinctions out of syntactical ones. Ontology, properly understood, is not merely the shadow of syntax. Syntax has no doubt evolved in a way that is partially sensitive to ontological distinctions, but is influenced by many other factors which make it an unreliable guide to ontology.

–the late E. J. Lowe, The Four Category Ontology

Well, on second thought, maybe you do need to keep this in mind. When I say that this is one of those things you need to keep in mind, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a thing that corresponds to that which you ought to keep in mind, despite my claim’s making perfect sense and being reasonably debatable. That is a trick of syntax, of language.

Maybe you could put it this way: you don’t need to believe (in) everything you think. Even an atheist might say “God bless you” if you sneeze, a perfectly polite thing to say, but you can’t catch him in a contradiction thereby. You can’t say, “Ah, see! You do believe in God!” The sign in my front yard, “All trespassers will be shot,” does not entail any actual bloodletting, or even any trespassers, for that matter. In fact, if my sign does the trick, there won’t be any trespassers.

I guess I’m just one of those guys who is afraid of making commitments…ontological commitments, that is.

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Is Philosophy a Show about Nothing?

Peter Unger, author of Empty Ideas, thinks so. Read this interview with one of his former students. Here’s a taste:

Back to Empty Ideas, I guess you think people should just face up to that, instead of thinking that they’re doing something very important, or deep.

Probably. That’s what Wittgenstein concluded. I’m just not holding myself to be something like a quasi-mystical genius that he was supposed to have been. I’m just an ordinary schlub, who happens to have more perspective on things than other mainstream philosophers.

And I’m smarter than almost all of them. A few of my colleagues are smarter than I am. But except for Tim Maudlin, they all have much less perspective than I do, and some of them none at all. They have no idea what they’re doing, or very little idea of what they’re doing, or distorted ideas of what they’re doing.

One of them who’s much smarter than me is Kit Fine. His office is right over there next to mine. I discuss him in one of the chapters of Empty Ideas. He has no more idea of what he’s doing than Aristotle did, and in Aristotle’s day there was an excuse: nobody knew anything. Nowadays it’s less of an excuse.

Although he clearly is in love with himself, nevertheless Unger strikes me as something like a “self-hating philosopher,” one of those philosophers who tries to philosophize philosophy out of existence. They make for a comical yet pathetic figure. A question: what is the philosophical status of a book like Empty Ideas? Why, on its own terms, should I not take it to be just a bunch of hot air?

Note that Unger’s targets are all so-called analytic philosophers. It is not an uncommon criticism of analytic philosophy that it has, in large swaths anyway, lost touch with human experience (often due to its “science”-envy). But is so-called analytic philosophy – which, btw, is all I’m reading at the moment for a project I am working on – all there is to philosophy?


UPDATE: Here is the Maverick Philosopher’s take on this same interview. Key point: Philosophizing your way out of philosophy is like copulating for chastity. Right!


Richard Wolin reviews Heidegger’s Black Notebooks

Here is a lengthy reflection on the recently published “Black Notebooks” of Martin Heidegger by Richard Wolin. The essence of the review is that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and pro-National Socialism are not tangential to his philosophy of being but rather lie at its heart. Hand-in-glove is an anti-rationalism that pervades Heidegger’s work, which translates into an anti-modern, anti-enlightenment, anti-democratic view of the world.

Since Heidegger regarded the history of philosophy since Plato as a “history of decline,” he was not bound by the central concepts and standards of that tradition. Consequently, he characterizes the nature of Being, on which so much depends, in terms that, to all intents and purposes, fall beneath the threshold of sense: “Yet Being—what is Being? It is It itself. The thinking that is to come must learn to experience that and to say it.” But if Being can only be defined as self-identical—“It is It itself”—how might we humans make sense of its various manifestations? Heidegger claims to possess superior insight concerning Being’s modalities. But these insights remain undemonstrable: They transcend—often, in ways that seem entirely arbitrary—the basic capacities of the human understanding, which Heidegger frequently mocked.

Anyway, all this was known for ages about Heidegger, and the publication of the “Black Notebooks” only serves to reinforce our general estimation of Heidegger as an unsavory human being with wretched politics who is still – if we can be at all objective about such a person – a genius.

The trouble, for me, is saying in what exactly that genius really consists.

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PoMoCons vs Porchers

Here are a couple of pieces (here and here) about a debate of sorts between two groups of conservatives who collectively make up the 3% of the conservative world who are not libertarian capitalism idolators. In this corner, we have the PoMoCons – the “Postmodern Conservatives.” In that corner, we have the Porchers – those who align themselves with the vision expressed by the “Front Porch Republic.”

Read for yourself to see if there is anything in either of these two viewpoints. For myself, either is at least somewhat better than the 97%er “conservatives” who, in fact, couldn’t give a damn about conserving anything.

97 percent of conservatives don’t give a rat’s ass what either the Pomocons or the Porchers have to say

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The meaning of enemies for philosophy

…a philosopher is bound to make enemies because of his ideas, or else we can say he isn’t a proper philosopher at all.

I used to work for an organization that promoted the “constructive engagement of science and religion.” The trouble with that mission, though, is that it is milquetoast. It tried to show that everyone on both sides has a point and that all should be taken, if not totally seriously, then at least with a modicum of respect. But who can disagree with a mission that reduces to “don’t be so judgmental”? The problem for that organization was that, as I always used to say, “we didn’t have any interesting enemies.” If you are saying something that absolutely no one would find objectionable, then you are not saying anything of interest at all.

Same goes with philosophy. But there are other reasons a thinker might gain enemies: jealousy, pettiness, stupidity, posing, and so on. Slavoj Žižek attracts both kinds of enemies, the ones who read and understand his work yet do not agree with his ideas and the ones who don’t bother to read his work yet feel compelled to not like him anyway. (Jacques Derrida had plenty of the latter.)

Read this piece concerning Slavoj Žižek and one of his enemies to see what I mean.


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