Jun 192011

The internet and social media have greatly extended the range of choices available in modern life. This is usually taken to be a good thing — or at least to be harmless. We can now more easily transcend limitations of physical location and spatial dis­tance, not only to access goods and services, but also to make connections and form rela­tionships with a variety of people of our own choosing. Such an increase in choices is not entirely new. In important respects the rise of internet communities has merely in­ten­sified a process that urbanization began long ago. Cities not only brought a vari­ety of goods and services to their inhabitants, but they also brought together people of diverse reli­gions, classes and ethnicities, and allowed a greater variety of possible associ­ations and self-selected relationships.

In the Discourse on Method, Descartes describes moving to Amsterdam in the seven­teenth century, “where in the midst of a great crowd actively engaged in busi­ness, and more careful of their own affairs than curious about those of others, I have been enabled to live without being deprived of any of the conveniences to be had in the most populous cities, and yet as solitary and as retired as in the midst of the most remote deserts.”[1] What is remarkable and revealing about the account Descartes offers is the ironic way that the increase in choices is directly linked to a detached aloofness, a disen­gaged anonymity. Being submersed in social possibilities coincides with an asocial isolation and solitude. But Descartes is not disturbed, or even con­cerned, by this result. In fact, Descartes describes such asocial detachment as an ideal oppor­tunity for objective reflection: “where, as I found no society to interest me, and was besides fortunately undisturbed by any cares or passions, I remained the whole day in seclusion, with full opportunity to occupy my attention with my own thoughts.”[2] The absence of family and friends, of meaningful employment, and of emotional ties, seems to open up possibilities, allowing the individual greater freedom of thought, and ultimately, of association and action. This is a deep and seductive idea in modern western societies, going all the way back to the Hebrew prophets, who literally fled to the desert to escape the constraints of family and community and to redefine their personal identity and sense of purpose. Amsterdam allowed Descartes to achieve this result without having to give up the conveniences of civilization.

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  1. Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method and the Meditations, trans. John Veitch (Buffalo, N. Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989), p, 29. []
  2. Ibid., p. 17. []
Oct 232009

Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked rhetorically, Do we bring up our children because we have found it pays? [1] This sounds absurd, yet in many ways our expressed thinking about children is utilitarian and fails to take them seriously as ends in themselves. Perhaps we are no longer driven to produce family heirs, but when we want to draw attention to the importance of educating children we still speak of them as “the leaders of tomorrow.” If we argue that the importance of children derives from the fact that they are future adults, we neglect to recognize any inherent value to child­hood itself. We look back with horror at Puritans who expected children to behave like little adults and viewed play as sin, but many developmental theories are still prone to analyze childhood as a series of stages leading to adulthood. In this case the mature adult remains the measure and the end of analysis, and childhood is just a means. Play is acceptable in children because we have recognized that through play various capacities are developed that we value in the mature adult. Does such thinking respect childhood, or have we raised the reductionism of our Puritan fore­bears to a new level of sophistication and subtlety? This is not to suggest that developmental models are not important and illuminating, but only that taken alone such models are inherently reductive and that perhaps we have not yet earned the right to look down on Puritans.

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Feb 232009

Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent book, Dependent Rational Animals, offers us a picture of the human situation as fundamentally dependent and derives from this a corresponding picture of the relationship between rationality and various virtues. In the last chapter he concludes that “we are able to become and to continue as practical reasoners only in and through our relationships to others,” and hence that, “rational enquiry is essentially social.” It is “not something that I undertake by attempting to separate myself from the whole set of my beliefs, relationships, and commitments and to view them from some external standpoint. It is something that we undertake from within our shared mode of practice” (MacIntyre 1999 156-157). While I ultimately share these conclusions, it is valuable to consider how some of MacIntyre’s specific arguments and discussions undermine this general insight. At various points he himself falls prey to what he calls “illusions of self-sufficiency” by supposing that critique requires transcendence, that accountable practical reasoners must be independent practical reasoners, and that speaking with “my own voice” must replace “my originally infantile desire to please others.” I will suggest that these assumptions are residues of a Kantian picture of reason and morality which are inappropriate to the essentially social nature of being dependent rational animals.

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Nov 012008

I am not much interested in the hidden intentions Shakespeare had in writing Macbeth, whether he was striving to portray the immortal torment of the human soul or merely to flatter the self-importance of an English King. I’ll leave that to the scholars and hecklers of the human spirit who can find nothing better to do than to dig around in the dust-bins of history. I am interested in the play as it stands. In particular, I am interested in the “weird sisters.” I think we should take the damn witches seriously.

Readers have scoffed for centuries at the three witches in Macbeth. But nowadays we are not satisfied with scoffing at witches, and we seek to go further. Nowadays our literary critics herald “the death of the author” as Nietzsche once spoke of “the death of God.” There is only the text, they say, and the doer behind the deed is a metaphysical fiction. But if skepticism is our value we should also show skepticism about our skepticism. We should be suspicious of the grandiose claims of Nietzsche and our contemporary literary critics and suspect, in the spirit of Mark Twain, that reports of the death of God and of authorship are greatly exaggerated. Authors and gods are tough things to kill. As Shakespeare wove the witches into Macbeth in diverse and subtle ways, gods and authors weave themselves into the fabric of our world. Perhaps in time we could “kill them,” but should we? Would life be better, more worth living, in a disenchanted world?

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Oct 162008

Philosophers have never felt comfortable speaking about silence. Why should they? At best such efforts are ironic; undertaking them literally is generally thought to involve performative contradictions, since the content of what we are trying to say contradicts the fact that we are saying it. When mystics claim to have an ineffable, or inexpressible, knowledge of ultimate realities, philosophers are naturally curious to hear more about it, but of course anything intelligible the mystics may say, including the very idea of the ineffable, is by definition not ineffable but expressed, and hence self-refuting. It seems that the best solution is for mystics to maintain total silence. But even then Hegel does not leave the mystics alone. He dismisses their silent knowledge as “the night in which all cows are black” – in other words, as a pre­sumptuous and ultimately empty achievement.

Trying to speak about silence is akin to the ontological task of trying to get something from nothing. Maybe God can create ex nihilo, but the rest of us find this hard to understand, and doing it is totally beyond us. Most philosophers cannot even bake a cake. Even ordinary people find it hard to argue with the principle ex nihilo, nihil fit (from nothing, nothing comes) — and when philo­sophers are asked to make something of nothing, they seem compelled to employ humor to effect their escape. For example, in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy P. L. Heath writes:

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