Archive for category Feed Your Mind

What can’t you say? Stephen Fry, Slavoj Žižek, Elif Shafak and more say the unsayable


Over there at the New Statesman, a gaggle of interesting people were asked what you can’t say, what we’re not allowed to say…and then to say it. Well worth a scan, but I think I prefer Nick Cave’s answer the best:

The lovely thing about the unsayable is that it is unsaid. As soon as it is said, it is sayable and loses all its mystery and ambiguity. Art exists so that the unsayable can be said without having to actually say it. We cloud it in secrecy and obfuscation. The mind is free to roam and all things can be imagined, under the cover of darkness. How nice that is. The unsayable. How tired we are of having things explained to us. Having things said. How nice it is, when people just shut the fuck up.

What can’t you say? Stephen Fry, Slavoj Žižek, Elif Shafak and more say the unsayable.


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Time in a Nutshell

Get some perspective!

(hat-tip to student Ryan B.!)

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Read slowly to benefit your brain and cut stress – WSJ

“When I realized I read Twitter more than a book, I knew it was time for action,” she says.

via Read slowly to benefit your brain and cut stress – WSJ.

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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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Recent philosophical links

Some light reading:

Lee Braver on groundless grounds.

Boris Groys under the gaze of theory.

Jacques Derrida’s destruction of structuralism.

On deconstructing and occupying.

A couple of pieces on Zizek here and here.

An “ugly old atheist” asks, “Where are the women?”

That ought to keep you busy for a few minutes….

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It’s really Revolution Day

[This post first appeared on June 30, 2011.]

Why do we call this U.S. holiday (holy day?) simply “the 4th of July”? Why don’t we call it “Revolution Day”?

Because God forbid we remember that it is supposed to be a revolution that we’re honoring. Okay, it was a certain kind of a revolution, one that favored the best interests of a certain group of people at the expense of others (one should always ask, cui bono…who benefits?). Still, it was a revolution of sorts, and a world-historical one at that.

What would happen if we really thought about revolution? It is probably too much to ask, to dangerous to consider. I get that, I suppose. I’m comfy…aren’t you?

But here is Tom Paine (from “The American Crisis“), with some updates underlined to ponder:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain [or America], with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us [and any other country it chooses] in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.

Ponder that…. I know I got my comfiness pretty cheaply, if truth be told.

William Godwin, in hisEnquiry Concerning the Principles of Justice (1793), patiently and at length explains the dangers of government, whose power (as Lord Acton rightly noted) inevitably corrupts. And then Godwin asks what is to be hoped. He answers, speaking here of the juridical power of the state:

The reader has probably anticipated me in the ultimate conclusion, from these remarks. If juries might at length cease to decide and be contented to invite, if force might gradually be withdrawn and reason trusted alone, shall we not one day find that juries themselves and every other species of public institution, may be laid aside as unnecessary? Will not the reasonings of one wise man be as effectual as those of twelve? Will not the competence of one individual to instruct his neighbours be a matter of sufficient notoriety, without the formality of an election? Will there be many vices to correct and much obstinacy to conquer? This is one of the most memorable stages of human improvement. With what delight must every well informed friend of mankind look forward to the auspicious period, the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine, which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind, and which, as has abundantly appeared in the progress of the present work, has mischiefs of various sorts incorporated with its substance, and no otherwise to be removed than by its utter annihilation!

[vol. II, ch. 24]

Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to William S. Smith, Nov. 13, 1787, this famous line (with its subsequent, not-so-famous line attached):

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

In other words, revolution can be good sh#t!

But Jefferson’s metaphor is apt: revolution is not mere destruction. It’s more like horticulture, gardening, growing beautiful & nourishing things. And sometimes in life, for the sake of something better, you’ve got to prune.

Our Founders pruned. But pruning is not a once-and-done deal. Not in gardening, not in political life.

In the lead-up to “Revolution Day,” why need read a little more of Jefferson’s letter to Smith:

I do not know whether it is to yourself or Mr. Adams I am to give my thanks for the copy of the new constitution. I beg leave through you to place them where due. It will be yet three weeks before I shall receive them from America. There are very good articles in it: & very bad. I do not know which preponderate. What we have lately read in the history of Holland, in the chapter on the Stadtholder, would have sufficed to set me against a chief magistrate eligible for a long duration, if I had ever been disposed towards one: & what we have always read of the elections of Polish kings should have forever excluded the idea of one continuable for life. Wonderful is the effect of impudent & persevering lying. The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, & what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts? And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it’s motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independent 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen-yard in order. I hope in God this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted.

TJ wasn’t always right, wasn’t always on the side of the angels, was he? Be he has a point here….



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David Christian – Big History

The story of everything…in 18 minutes.
[You may want to watch this here instead of below, as the video controller does not seem to be working. Below, once you start, you can only stop it by reloading the page (at least in my browser…).]

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In Praise of the Useless University

Martha Nussbaum, among many others (including almost everyone who writes college catalog entries for humanities departments) argues that the liberal arts are good for business and democracy.  The humanities teach us critical thinking skills and help form in us an “enlarged mind” that is useful for becoming successful in the world of commerce and politics.

But should we proponents of the humanities be making our case in this way?

According to Fencing Bear at Prayer, here’s the case for the humanities:  There isn’t one.

Why study the humanities? Not because they will make us better citizens. Not because they will make our lives physically more comfortable or enable us to build better engines or cure cancer. But because one of the things that human beings do is reflect on what it means to be a human being and to wonder at the many forms of expression this reflection has taken. That’s it. Take this reflection away and we might as well be robots. Or beasts. Comfortable, well-built robots or healthy beasts, to be sure, but no longer ourselves. Not human.

Rufus F. at the League of Ordinary Gentleman insists we stop selling the humanities for all of the other things they are “good for” and remember that liberal learning is a good in itself, however “useless.”

The humanities are rooted in the study of texts, which will increasingly put them at odds with a society in which reading is becoming vestigial. People who grow up detached from any cultural/historical context will find academics increasingly alien, if not offensive to their sensibilities. Attacks on the humanities will increase. The way to address them isn’t to trick the public into thinking they’re getting something else for their money, but to repeatedly defend the right of academics to hang back from the passions of the day- to be less-than-useful for whatever desires the society wants satisfied today. That means, by the way, academics in the humanities must drop altogether the pretense of political “activism” and, in their public role, become much more explicitly apoliticaland inactivist; conversely, they need to start expressing quite loudly the worth of this eternal hanging back, instead of flattering and placating a culture that is arguably no culture.

Matthew J. Milliner’s piece, “Useless University,” reminds us that John Henry Newman held that truth has two attributes, beauty and power.  The power of truth is expressed in useful knowledge, the knowledge and skills required for business, technology, and government, in short the knowledge useful for getting a job.  In the liberal arts, on the other hand, the beauty of truth can be discovered and contemplated for its own sake.  Such contemplation is an end in itself, pursued just because we can.  Milliner draws the conclusion:

If Newman is right, then to justify the liberal arts, which would now include what we call the humanities, as instrumentally useful, is also to betray them….

Of course, we all have to eat.  Which means most of us have to have jobs.  But do all of us have to have jobs that preclude our having the leisure for contemplating the beauty of being, of the cosmos, of truth?  Here’s an idea (from Toby Ord): live like a graduate student…forever!

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The End of Philosophy???

A student’s lament:

If we are to believe that philosophy is some guy’s opinion, then we have forgotten the essence of philosophy. Philosophy is the touchstone of all progress. We must remember that philosophy is the purest form of dissent. If we do not ask questions, if we do not question authority, if we do not pressure ourselves, then society will never advance. All progress comes from change, and philosophers used to be the backbone of change. Whether we go back thousands of years to Socrates’ “corrupting the youth” or more recently to Bertrand Russell’s condemnation of the Vietnam War, it is obvious that philosophers used to take a stand against a callous system. Now they simply summarize and overanalyze all the irrelevant aspects of life.

This “magnificent” philosophy program I have experienced is a glorified course in writing book reports. Philosophy has been badgered to death by dogmatic opinions and shallow thoughts.

More.  I hope my students and my colleagues are listening….

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A few words in praise of uselessness…

A student and I were chatting for a few moments after class on Friday.  She told me that she enjoys our class because she gets “to think about and discuss some important things,” things that don’t seem to come up over there in the business school where she pursues her major.  She wondered whether she should consider changing her major from something she doesn’t like (business) to something she does (seem to) like (philosophy).

Now, I sharpened up this brief conversation to make a point:  this is the moment that any honest and self-aware philosophy professor dreads more than any other.  What do I say next?

Do I go on and on about how the humanities are not respected in academia (despite the lip-service paid them), about the miserable job prospects for one who wants to pursue humane learning in a professional capacity, about the viciousness of campus politics (because, as they say, so little is at stake), that academia seems to breed negativity, etc.?  Who’d recommend to a young person that way of life?  And do I say that the humanities are just something we do for a while, now, while we (at least you) are young, that getting a job is the main thing because so much else in our lives hangs on our economic circumstances, about how the humanities are seemingly useless to living in a consumer society such as ours, about how just because we do not enjoy something does not mean it is not good for us—I teach (about) Aristotelian virtue, after all—etc.?

On the other hand, how do I tamp down the obvious enthusiasm—even love—that I have for philosophy and for what I do with my life?  The students can’t miss it.  And they want that or something like that.  It doesn’t have to be academic philosophy, but they want something that will produce the effusive joy in living and doing in them that they see coming from me.  They know I’m not doing it for the money (Lord knows).  They know I had a career in business that brought in a very nice income.  They know I got to see a little of the world—maybe more than most do.  But they see that, after all, here I am.

And they see that how I experience the philosophical life generates a joy in me that is akin to the joy someone else might find in stamp collecting or ice hockey or cooking—but that it’s also more than that.  The philosophical life is about life itself, about us, even all about me in a non-superficial sense.  Students in college (and even—maybe especially—the “non-traditional” students, the returning adults) are at a point in their lives where it seems to be “all about me”—again, not just in some superficial, selfish sense.  In fact, you might say that the superficial, selfish manifestations of “all about me” arise just because there is no authentic arena for thinking about, wondering about, imagining what “me” means for most of these students.  When students find such a space, they gravitate towards it.

And yet, the self-aware, honest philosopher would have to ask: This “joy” you’re referring to—is it genuine?  Is it coming from pursuing philosophy itself (if it has an “itself”)?  Or does it come from being in charge in the classroom, from being on stage, raptly attended to (if you are any good at performing), from being the know-it-all in the room, from not having to meet payroll anymore, or deal with neurotic funders or board members or troublesome employees, or the bottom line?  Is philosophy, for me, “all about me,” in a superficial sense?  And am I in any way encouraging the same quest for selfish ego-gratification in others, in perhaps impressionable young people?

Just asking oneself these questions is—inescapably—philosophical, an occupational hazard of the philosophical life, the price to be paid for a joyous pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  It’s all in the game.  And the answer is:  Sure, it’s selfish.  But it is not only selfish.  When my students drive away in better cars, I know it is not only selfish.  What I do is fun, but it is also serious.  It is to me, and it is to the students around me.  I should really say fellow-students, because (selfishly, yes!) I am still learning, yearning for learning.  I know that I do not know.

Knowing computer programming, accounting, or animal husbandry is useful.  Not knowing is useless.  Constantly examining one’s life is useless.  Philosophy is useless.  It gets in the way of the useful, upends efficiency and effectiveness, makes trouble where no one noticed anything troubling.

I think this truth about philosophy infects academic philosophy.  I would be willing to bet that most departments might frown upon taking philosophy personally—or at least worry over when it gets “too personal,” as if it is not really about persons, teacher-persons and student-persons.  Departments, I would imagine, tend to worry about confusing eros with philia.  It is a fair concern.  If philosophy is personal—about persons—then some sense of intimacy might develop.  And then, call the lawyers!  It wouldn’t be useful to make education be so personal—not just for these reasons, but also because we’ve made education all about certification.  We have tests and grades and such in order to be able to certify.  So a “good” philosophy student is one who knows about philosophy—which one might be even if one is not a philosopher—does well by knowing names and dates, how to define terms, the stock arguments, who influenced whom, etc.  Making philosophy to be knowing-about-philosophy is very useful for academic philosophy because you can assess it.  If you teach virtue ethics, for instance, you could ask questions about Aristotle and Alasdair MacIntyre.  But you could never follow a student around the rest of her life trying to assess how virtuous in living she’s become.

Knowing about philosophy might be useful outside the academy…it is hard to see how, though.  What would you do…open up your own little philosophy shop?  I guess you could engage in interesting cocktail party conversation.  You could win big on Jeopardy!, I suppose, being able to ring in fast with, “Who was Descartes?”  But it won’t come up on a regular basis in corporate headquarters.

I could try to re-describe philosophy—academic philosophy—in terms that make it appear as if it were useful.  In academic philosophy, you learn the art of careful, close reading; argumentation; debate; critical thinking; seeing the “big picture;” etc.  All these are eminently useful skills to develop.  My students know, for instance, that a big part of the reason I made a buck or two in the business world was simply because I developed these skills.  I never had business, information technology, or manufacturing courses, but I ended up having a bunch of people who did work for me.  It would be impossible for me to argue that philosophy—at least academic philosophy—has been useless to me.

But all of that makes up the form of academic philosophy, not the content.  You should be learning all of those skills across the liberal arts curriculum.  But for me, the content—what philosophy is all about—matters.  It would be better if conversations about Aristotle, Kant, and Mill came up on board rooms and shop floors as much as in lecture halls.  But they usually don’t.  So, for many reasons, philosophy happens only intensely on college and university campuses (if it does at all).

Speaking of Aristotle, he defines happiness as an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.  Happiness is not a feeling or emotion, but an activity, an actualization, a way of being, a state once achieved that is permanent.  Aristotle says we do all things for the sake of happiness.  What this means is that everything we do we do because it at least seems useful to us for getting what we ultimately want:  happiness.  But this means that happiness—in the sense Aristotle means it—is useless.  It is not for anything.  There is no “in order to” that follows happiness.  On the contrary, everything else is “in order to” be happy.

If happiness—again, not to be confused with mere pleasure, although it includes it—is what we want, then what we want is, itself, useless.  What students see in me—someone taking joy from the ultimately useless, i.e., someone pursuing genuine happiness, someone working on being happy—is just exactly what they are looking for.  I don’t mean me, that it is peculiar or specific to me.  There is no cult of personality going on here.  I mean they see something in me and what I’m doing that goes way beyond me, that, in fact, makes them forget all about me (in both senses of that—forget about EW and forget about their own superficial “all about me” attitude) and start to be able to grasp who they are and what happiness means to them.  And they start to question whether “getting a job”—the most useful thing in the world—will mean happiness for them.

But—again—the problem for me, their teacher and somewhat reluctant advisor—is what to say to them about all this.  If I say the most important things are the most useless things (i.e., they are goods in themselves, regardless of whether they are useful for anything else), I don’t want them to think there is nothing useful for getting to the “useless.”  Aristotle would be emphatic about this.  There are many things that are useful for getting to happiness (even as they should not be confused with being “happiness” itself).  But if I emphasize just how important the useful things are (like accounting and computer programming, engineering and law, architecture and culinary arts), I don’t want them to think that we’re just wasting time, then, on this useless philosophy stuff.

So my student friend was wondering, in effect: Should I trade useful for useless?

Now what kind of advisor would I be if I simply were to say:  Yes, go for it!?  Part of me thinks I ought to be sued for nonsupport were I to do so.

My academic advisor answer is:  “You know, philosophy is a great minor.  Goes great with business management.”

It’s a useful response.  Still, I want to give them something a little more useless because, well, useless is more….

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