Philosophy Feed

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.

Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism

Saint Paul: The Foundation of UniversalismSaint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism by Alain Badiou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Prof. Ted Jennings lectured at First Central earlier in the month, he spoke of the non-Christian, even atheist and Marxist thinkers, who were drawing upon Paul as the revolutionary figure needed for our age. I was not familiar with this body of work, which surprised me, as I have read a lot in Paul studies the last dozen years and radically altered my views on him. So, I Googled to learn more and discovered a rich literature and even textbooks of selections of such writings on Paul.

I decided to order this one, as I have also never read Badiou, so I could check the box of having read one of his books and thus kill two birds with one stone.

When I began the book, I rolled my eyes, for a sentence like this is what makes contemporary French philosophy almost impossible: "How are we to inscribe this name into the development of our project: to refound a theory of the Subject that subordinates its existence to the aleatory dimension of the event as well as to the pure contingency of multiple-being without sacrificing the theme of freedom?"

I also had to look "aleatory" up.

But as I finished the first chapter, I had to take back some of my snark, for it was quite good. And this was one of those books I stayed up late and got up early to keep reading.

That doesn't mean it was easy, for it had some dense sentences like that one. And I'm certain I did not grasp all of Badiou's meaning. But here I encountered a Paul who is knew to me. Yet, also familiar enough that I could resonate with Badiou's discussion.

Paul centers his thought upon a fabulous event--the resurrection--which opens up the opportunity to create a new, universal humanity, a new creature. Particularity and wisdom, law and difference, are all overcome in this revolution.

When Jennings lectured on these developments in Pauline thought, but ended with an emphasis on resurrection, one of my congregants was puzzled, and we've had follow-up conversations. He felt that if Paul was to be used by atheists and Marxists, surely the resurrection would be cast aside. I enjoyed texting him that for Badiou the resurrection, while fable and as fable, is essential to understanding Paul and his ideas for revolution.

I also commend Badiou's exegesis, which is quite good. I will use some passages in sermons, I'm sure.

Two drawbacks to the book--no bibliography and no index. Puzzling in an intellectual work.

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Luther's The Freedom of a Christian

Today I read Martin Luther's 1520 manifesto "The Freedom of a Christian."  It is quite good.  I will be quoting from the text in upcoming sermons as part of our Reformed series.

At the beginning, he sets down two propositions which are both true: "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all."

Here was a passages I enjoyed:

Since these promises of God are holy, true, righteous, free, and peaceful words, full of goodness, the soul which clings to them with a firm faith will be so closely united with them and altogether absorbed by them that it not only will share in all their power but will be saturated and intoxicated by them.

Since I'm also re-reading Kant ahead of teaching him again in ethics class in a few weeks, I felt the influence from Luther to Kant was clearly evident.  Kant's notion of freedom is autonomy from our desires and from any law other than that chosen by us.  We are freed to act morally. Luther also writes of freedom from the law and that once set free we can live a good life of love as we choose it as a response to God's grace rather than as a necessity to earn our salvation.  Their ideas are not the same, but one can see how Kant's notion would emerge from a milieu governed by Luther's ideas.


Montaigne's advice for educating children

I would therefore have him begin even from his infancie to travell abroad; and first, that at one shoot he may hit two markes, he should see neighbour-countries, namely where languages are most different from ours; for, unlesse a mans tongue be fashioned unto them in his youth, he shall never attaine to the true pronuntiation of them, if he once grow in yeares.  Moreover, we see it received as a common opinion of the wiser sort, that it agreeth not with reason, that a childe be alwaies nuzzled, cockered, dandled, and brought up in his parents lap or sight; forsomuch as their naturall kindnesse, or (as I may call it) tender fondnesse, causeth often, even the wisest to prove so idle, over-nice, and so base-minded.  For parents are not capable, neither can they find in their hearts to see them checkt, corrected, or chastised, nor indure to see them brought up so meanly, and so far from daintinesse, and many times so dangerously, as they must needs be. . . . if he will make him prove a sufficient, compleat, or honest man: he must not be spared in his youth.


End of Work?

In recent months I've seen a lot about the end of work, how automatization is reducing the need for jobs.  We already have fewer jobs than people and that problem is only going to get worse.  Of course people and governments have begun experimenting with what's next.  We had a really interesting three part series in First Forum at church on this topic.

Here is a provocative essay saying that the goal of full employment is wrong, as such a thing is not even possible anymore.  The essay invites us to consider the meaning of life once work has ceased, a radical change in our Western picture of the good life, dating back to Plato.

So this Great Recession of ours – don’t kid yourself, it ain’t over – is a moral crisis as well as an economic catastrophe. You might even say it’s a spiritual impasse, because it makes us ask what social scaffolding other than work will permit the construction of character – or whether character itself is something we must aspire to. But that is why it’s also an intellectual opportunity: it forces us to imagine a world in which the job no longer builds our character, determines our incomes or dominates our daily lives.