Philosophy Feed

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.

 


The importance of Foucault's analysis of power

An essay discusses the continuing importance of Foucault's work on power.  An excerpt:

Herein lies the richness and the challenge of Foucault’s work. His is a philosophical approach to power characterised by innovative, painstaking, sometimes frustrating, and often dazzling attempts to politicise power itself. Rather than using philosophy to freeze power into a timeless essence, and then to use that essence to comprehend so much of power’s manifestations in the world, Foucault sought to unburden philosophy of its icy gaze of capturing essences. He wanted to free philosophy to track the movements of power, the heat and the fury of it working to define the order of things.

Also:

To be sure, disciplinary training is not sovereign violence. But it is power. Classically, power took the form of force or coercion and was considered to be at its purest in acts of physical violence. Discipline acts otherwise. It gets a hold of us differently. It does not seize our bodies to destroy them, as Leviathan always threatened to do. Discipline rather trains them, drills them and (to use Foucault’s favoured word) ‘normalises’ them. All of this amounts to, Foucault saw, a distinctly subtle and relentless form of power. To refuse to recognise such disciplining as a form of power is a denial of how human life has come to be shaped and lived. If the only form of power we are willing to recognise is sovereign violence, we are in a poor position to understand the stakes of power today. If we are unable to see power in its other forms, we become impotent to resist all the other ways in which power brings itself to bear in forming us.


African Enlightenment

An interesting essay today on Aeon about African Enlightenment philosophers--the Ethiopian Zera Yacob (1599-1692) and the Ghanaian Anton Amo (c1703-55)--who do not receive their due in the history of philosophy.  

Regarding Yacob:

For two years, until the death of the king in September 1632, Yacob remained in the cave as a hermit, visiting only the nearby market to get food. In the cave, he developed his new, rationalist philosophy. He believed in the supremacy of reason, and that all humans – male and female – are created equal. He argued against slavery, critiqued all established religions and doctrines, and combined these views with a personal belief in a theistic Creator, reasoning that the world’s order makes that the most rational option.

And Amo:

Amo matriculated at the University of Halle in 1727, and became well-respected in German academic circles of the time, holding lecturing positions both at the universities of Halle and Jena.

Also interesting to note the international faculty at the University of Halle, "The Arab teacher Salomon Negri of Damascus and the Indian Soltan Gün Achmet from Ahmedabad were others who arrived in Halle to study and teach."


Objective moral facts

As my Ethics class approaches the end of the semester, there is now an ongoing conversation with my students about whether morality is based upon objective facts or not.  I defend that it is, as virtue theory understands that.  

So, today I enjoyed reading this good essay on Philippa Foot and how she and other like Elizabeth Anscombe and Iris Murdoch rescued philosophy from emotivism and existentialist ethics by insisting that the virtues describe something real.

I delighted in this sentence from the essay, "To say that vice is a natural defect is not an answer to any question; it is simply a way of interpreting the question, of telling us where we should be looking."

So often students wrestle with virtue theory because they expect some set of rules to tell them how to decide ethical matters, rather than the more complex and nuanced activity of character formation.


The Questions of a Toddler

Preparing for next week's classes, there's this great line for parents of toddlers from Susan Neiman--"The adamant child who wants every question answered expresses something about the nature of reason." This is part of a larger conversation on how our reason demands a world that makes sense and that the philosophical impulse arises from this basic childhood need. So your toddler is exhibiting one of the most important traits of human intellect--the demand for reason and morality.


The Politics of Fear & Anger

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum delivered this year's Jefferson Lecture in the humanities on the topics of anger and fear in our politics.  A clear statement of her topic:

One of the trickiest problems in politics is to persist in a determined search for solutions, without letting fear deflect us onto the track of anger’s errors.

Democratic work is not easy, as it involves the transformation of our anger and controlling our fear.

Making a future of justice and well-being is hard. It requires self-examination, personal risk, searching critical arguments, and uncertain initiatives to make common cause with opponents—in a spirit of hope and what we could call rational faith. It’s a difficult goal, but it is that goal that I am recommending, for both individuals and institutions.

And, of course, she thinks philosophy makes a vital contribution to that effort:

Philosophy does not compel, or threaten, or mock. It doesn’t make bare assertions, but, instead, sets up a structure of thought in which a conclusion follows from premises the listener is free to dispute. In that way it invites dialogue, and respects the listener. Unlike the over-confident politicians that Socrates questioned (Euthyphro, Critias, Meletus), the philosophical speaker is humble and exposed: his or her position is transparent and thus vulnerable to criticism. 


Rule by citizens not experts

A robust defense of democracy against rule by the experts.  An excerpt:

The remedy for our democracy deficit is to devolve as much power as possible to the local level. Many problems can be addressed only on the state, federal and international level, but the idea is that participating in local politics teaches citizens how to speak in public, negotiate with others, research policy issues, and learn about their community and the larger circles in which it is embedded. Like any other skill, the way to become a better citizen is to practise citizenship.


First Cause?

When Sebastian entered the phase of asking Why? I was thrilled, as a philosopher.  And I told a friend that I was prepared to answer Sebastian's questions back to the First Cause and Unmoved Mover if need be. Well . . .

Last night I was changing him into his pajamas. He noted that it was getting darker outside and then asked, "Why?"
 
I explained that the earth is rotating on its axis and we were now pointing away from the sun.
 
Why?
 
I explained that this was the way the Solar System is constructed.
 
Why?
 
A brief explanation about gravity.
 
Why?  And now my excitement is building. We are getting close.
 
Then I told him about the Big Bang. He charmingly added sound effects. I went on to mention laws of nature, primary forces, and fundamental particles.
 
Then I waited, looking forward to the final question in the series. And . . .
 
. . . no question was forthcoming.
 
So I asked if the answer about the Big Bang was satisfactory, and he said 
 
Yes.