Philosophy Feed

Aztec Moral Philosophy

An interesting article on Aztec moral philosophy, which is a virtue ethics different from the Greek tradition.  

While Plato and Aristotle were concerned with character-centred virtue ethics, the Aztec approach is perhaps better described as socially-centred virtue ethics. If the Aztecs were right, then ‘Western’ philosophers have been too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices. Instead, according to the Aztecs, we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence.

One reason the Aztec's had this difference view is because they viewed life on Earth as "slippery."  Which means that fortune will eventually turn against us, or we will fail.  So instead of exercising great worry over whether or not a virtue person can suffer misfortune or make any mistakes (the way Greek virtue theory has), they simply assumed this and developed a virtue ethics where we must rely upon one another because life is "slippery."

This article left me wanting to know more about this tradition.  I'll likely incorporate something from this in my philosophy classes.


Perspective of "Death of Liberalism"

These authors point out that for more than a century liberalism's death has been predicted.  But that's nonsense, one reason being that so many different things are a form of liberalism.  This article gives some good historical perspective on our current moment.  And I liked this line, "Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires."


The Cerebral Mystique

A good article criticizing the notion that "we are our brains."  An excerpt:

The brain is special because it does not distil us to an essence, it unites us to our surroundings in a way a soul never could. If we value our own experiences, we must protect and strengthen the many factors that enrich our lives from both inside and outside, so that as many people as possible can benefit from them now and in the time to come. We must realise that we are much more than our brains.


Philosophical reflection on Whiteness

An interview with philosopher George Yancy about white American refusal to face racism and white privilege.

An excerpt:

When you talk about “whiteness” in the letter and book, what do you mean?

Whiteness is a structural, ideological, embodied, epistemological and phenomenological mode of being – and it is predicated upon its distance from and negation of blackness. This is what so many white people forget or refuse to see: their being racialized as white and socially and psychologically marked as privileged has problematic implications for my being black.

Whiteness is what I call the “transcendental norm”, which means that whiteness goes unmarked. As unmarked, white people are able to live their identities as unraced, as simply human, as persons. And this obfuscates the ways in which their lives depend upon various affordances that black people and people of color don’t possess.

White racism is thus a continuum, one that includes the KKK, the loving white Christian and the antiracist white. Even good, moral white people, those who have black friends, friends of color, married to people of color, fight for racial justice and so on, don’t escape white racist injustice against black people and people of color; they all continue to be implicated within structures of white privilege and to embody, whether they realize it or not, society’s racist sensibilities. White people possess white privilege or white immunity from racial disease. And because of this, others of us, black people and people of color, reap the social, political and existential pains of that racialized social skin.


Knowing the Mind of God: A Tribute to Stephen Hawking

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Most people would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better?  What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it?  Where did the universe come from, and where is it going?  Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then?  What is the nature of time?  Will it ever come to an end?  Recent breakthroughs in physics, made possible in part by fantastic new technologies, suggest answers to some of these longstanding questions.  Someday these answers may seem as obvious to us as the earth orbiting the sun--or perhaps as ridiculous as a tower of tortoises.  Only time (whatever that may be) will tell.

This is the second paragraph of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.  I read the book in college, I think when I was 19, and his follow up Black Holes and Baby Universes a few years later.  Hawking was already iconic among my high school friends--we were all sci fi and science geeks.  And I was in a phase where I had a deep fascination in cosmology and theoretical physics (I read most of the works of Paul Davies while in college and then wrote my senior Honors thesis about his concept of God).  

And this was the time when I was being drawn into philosophy, and metaphysics in particular, where these questions were explored.  

Since childhood even up to this morning when I was listening to the radio one thing has been guaranteed to make me nauseous--the thought of why anything exists at all and yet the idea of nothing existing makes no sense.  Rationality breaks down and my head and stomach spin.  And yet these limits of scientific and philosophical quandary drew me inexorably on.

The concluding chapter to A Brief History ventures further into the realm of philosophy and even theology and spirituality.  If we can achieve a complete unified theory (or theory of everything) then what role is left for God?  The book ends with a  most fascinating paragraph:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason--for then we would know the mind of God.

The "mind of God" here should be understood in the Platonic sense--the highest reality in the Divided Line in the Republic.  Only the highest form of knowledge, a type of mystical contemplation, can know the mind of God.  From ancient wisdom we have understood that the limits of reason and scientific inquiry take us into the realm of mystical experience.  Here was a contemporary physicist developing a similar idea (Paul Davies argued that physics is a surer path to God than religion, for similar reasons, and even named a major work The Mind of God).

But the problem with the God of the theoretical physicists, as with the God of the philosophers, is that they aren't describing Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. But, that discussion is for another time.

As my philosophical education advanced, I realized more of the flaws in Hawking's philosophical understanding of science (many scientists lack a philosophical understanding of their discipline), though looking at my marginalia, I already had some objections to simplistic understandings.  I don't think a theory of everything is possible, and one reason is that his understanding of the laws of physics can't survive philosophical critique.  Consider Nancy Cartwright's How the Laws of Physics Lie wherein she reveals that “Rendered as descriptions of fact, they are false; amended to be true, they lose their fundamental explanatory force."

But it is still a grand hope and something to aspire to.  And Hawking is correct that could we do it we would achieve the "ultimate triumph of human reason."  Though it may just be that to achieve that highest form of knowledge we must transcend reason into the mystical.

A toast to Stephen Hawking for his brilliant mind and insightful ideas.  I thank him for helping to inspire me and launch the course of my intellectual life.

BTW, here's an excellent obituary by Roger Penrose.


Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

The Last Interview and Other ConversationsThe Last Interview and Other Conversations by Hannah Arendt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this little volume of four Arendt interviews while in Oklahoma City last week. I continue to be impressed by Arendt's analysis and enjoy teaching her in my philosophy and ethics classes.

Among the interesting tidbits in this volume:

"A functionary, when he really is nothing more than a functionary, is really a very dangerous gentleman."

Her worry, in 1970, that the American working class was going to be attracted to nationalism.

That the student movements of the late 1960's had revealed the fun and joy of political action, what she called "public happiness." Also that the students acted with "the assurance of being able to change things by one's own efforts."

Her view that capitalism and socialism were both exploitative, even though the latter was created to solve that problem in the former.

The idea that she didn't consider herself a philosopher, but a political thinker.

She advocated a new form a government she called "the council system." People would be part of small councils working on a very local level--neighborhood, work, etc. The councils would discuss issues and make decisions. People who demonstrated strong capabilities would then represent the small councils at a higher level. In this system power would be horizontal, not vertical, and sovereignty and that nation state would vanish and be replaced by federations of councils.

This latter put me to mind of the congregational polity of the denominations I've been a part of and also what I valued about the Collegium model that the United Church of Christ had until last summer, which they unfortunately abandoned for a more corporate national structure.

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Multitudinous Self

A good essay on the self, defending a realist position that is a development of William James.  An excerpt:

The multitudinous self is based on the psychologist Ulric Neisser’s account of the self, laid out in his paper ‘Five Kinds of Self-knowledge’ (1988). Neisser encourages us to reevaluate the sources of information that help us to identify the self. There are five sources, which are so different from one another that it is plausible to conceive each as establishing a different ‘self’. First there is the ecological self, or the embodied self in the physical world, which perceives and interacts with the physical environment; the interpersonal self, or the self embedded in the social world, which constitutes and is constituted by intersubjective relationships with others; the temporally extended self, or the self in time, which is grounded in memories of the past and anticipation of the future; the private self which is exposed to experiences available only to the first person and not to others; and finally the conceptual self, which (accurately or falsely) represents the self to the self by drawing on the properties or characteristics of not only the person but also the social and cultural context to which she belongs.


Hauerwas on MacIntyre

The website First Things sends out archived essays on Sundays, and this week's e-mail included an 11 year old essay by theologian Stanley Hauerwas on philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre.  Hauerwas is one of my deepest theological influences and MacIntyre's After Virtue has deeply affected my thinking on the virtues and practice of ministry.  In the essay, Hauerwas discusses the virtues of MacIntyre's work, particularly a focus on his philosophy of action.  An excerpt:

The “plain person” is the character MacIntyre has identified to display the unavoidability of the virtues. Plain persons are those characterized by everyday practices such as sustaining families, schools, and local forms of political community. They engage in trades and professions that have required them to learn skills constitutive of a craft. Such people are the readers he hopes his books may reach. Grounded as they are in concrete practices necessary to sustain a common life, they acquire the virtues that make them capable of recognizing the principles of natural law and why those principles call into question the legitimating modes of modernity.

MacIntyre has sought, within the world we necessarily inhabit, to help us recover resources to enable us to act intelligibly.


Descartes wrong about the self

He was wrong about so many things, but still so important to read and teach.  I often tell my students that his most lasting impact were the questions he raised, rather than the answers he gave them.

Here's a good essay critical of his influential notion of the self, arguing against an independent self and for a more relational view.  An excerpt:

So reality is not simply out there, waiting to be uncovered. ‘Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction,’ Bakhtin wrote in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929). Nothing simply is itself, outside the matrix of relationships in which it appears. Instead, being is an act or event that must happen in the space between the self and the world.