All posts filed under: Philosophy

Postmodern Philosophy is a Debating Strategy

In a recent article, Matt McManus drew a valuable distinction between postmodern culture and postmodern philosophy. Postmodern culture, he argued, was first theorized by neo-Marxists to refer to what they saw as a new phase of capitalism, characterized by heightened skepticism and a preoccupation with subjectivity. However, one need not adopt Marxist social theory in order to agree with the basic point that the social conditions which characterize twenty-first century liberal democracies make it difficult to take our beliefs for granted. The unprecedented degree of cultural and religious pluralism on offer in developed nations today undoubtedly has an impact on what we can take to be certain. Charles Taylor in his masterpiece A Secular Age called this process “fragilization,” the basic idea of which is that it is more difficult to believe in something wholeheartedly when that belief is not shared by the people one is surrounded by (indeed, we might call this sociology of knowledge 101). So, there is a real sense in which we do in fact live in a post- (or what …

How Should We Read the Totalitarian Philosophers?

How should one read and interpret authors whose work has clearly become associated—justly or not—with totalitarianism? In recent years, this debate has included figures like the Marxist historian Erik Hobsbawm, who has received scathing criticism for his soft approach to various communist regimes, and the literary theorist Paul de Man. However, here I will focus on the work of four philosophers whose work provided inspiration to totalitarianism and terror—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger. It might seem disconcerting to imply there is a problem with reading such authors. After all, an intellectual work isn’t especially interesting unless it forces us to look critically at sides of ourselves and our societies we have been unwilling to examine—the darker undercurrents of politics and the human psyche. This may be especially true if we wish to combat totalitarian and authoritarian impulses successfully. Looking at those who inspired or supported these movements can give us a better understanding of their appeal. Hannah Arendt remains one of the most probing and articulate analysts of twentieth century totalitarianism, …

The Unconstrained Vision of David Deutsch

In his book A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell argues that a good deal of political disagreements can be traced back to different assumptions about human nature. It is not a coincidence if many people seem to systematically fall on the same side of different, apparently unrelated political issues: starting from different visions of human nature and how the world works, people seem to cluster around the same stable sets of political positions (with the help, I would surmise, of some good old tribalism). Sowell distinguishes between the unconstrained vision and the constrained vision. In the unconstrained vision, human beings are capable of great feats of wisdom, virtue, and intellectual power. Our egoism, our self-interestedness, and our wickedness are not part of our nature, but are instead artifacts of cruel, unfair, or irrational institutions. Given our capacity for enlightenment, it follows that some of us, who find themselves further on the path of perfectibility, can use their intellectual and moral power to elucidate what must be done and get rid of the shackles of the …

On the Value of Truth

Many claim that we live in a “post-truth” era. Trust in major civic and political institutions is rapidly declining. People on all sides of the political spectrum dismiss the media as biased at best and little more than “fake news” at worst. The postmodern President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world, and according to Politifact makes statements that range from “half true” to outright lies 83 per cent of the time. In an earlier article for Canada’s The Hill Times, I invoked the philosopher Harry Frankfurt and summarized these developments as a rising “Age of Bullshit.” Concurrently, our post-truth era has been marked with lamentations across the ideological spectrum by those who provide a variety of explanations for our climate of untruth. Many progressives and liberals pin the blame on manipulative conservative politicians such as Trump and Boris Johnson, interference by foreign governments and cyber-attacks, and politically biased media. Many conservatives, meanwhile, pin the blame on progressive activists, the rise of PC culture and oversensitivity, and…politically biased media. I have already …

The Frankfurt School and Postmodern Philosophy

There has been a tremendous pushback in recent years against what are broadly known as “grievance studies”; a loose collection of academic disciplines characterized by their emphasis on oppressive social and political institutions and the marginalized identities they victimize. The philosophical outlook underpinning these disciplines tend to be portrayed in a less ambiguous manner: it is typically described as some combination of Marxist politics with postmodern skepticism, and has been variously termed “cultural Marxism,” postmodern neo-Marxism, the New Left, and so on. In his book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism From Rousseau to Foucault, the philosopher Stephen Hicks argues that post-Kantian thinking gradually led to the adoption of ever more skeptical epistemologies. At the same time, a growing number of intellectuals came to align with Marxist and socialist political perspectives. This leads Hicks to the claim that postmodern philosophy is the perpetuation of Marxist politics through other philosophical means. He argues that there is a clear through line where the scientific pretensions of classical Marxism gradually gave way to the irrationalist critiques of the cultural …

Between Discipline and Chaos

“Anyone capable of living outside a city,” wrote Aristotle, “must either be a beast or a god.” Before taking offense or pride in that aphorism, the rural should know that the Greek for “city” here is polis, and the polis of classical Greece was not a city in our sense. It was smaller than a nation, to be sure, but unlike London or Washington, it was a sovereign state. Every human individual, Aristotle is saying, must live within such a group—whether it be a tribe or an empire. To lack such a polis, to live truly alone, would require the independence of a wild animal or the self-sufficiency of a god. We need groups to survive; we need someone else to do our hunting or growing, someone else to make our clothes and build our houses, someone else to fix our furnace and perform our surgeries. But the polis does more than help us survive. It encompasses the family, the school and the broader culture, all of which shape who we become. Without such groups, …

The Anti-Natalist Paradox

What if you could choose one person in your life and end their suffering? All the pain and frustration and woe intrinsic to their mortal condition would disappear and—best of all—with no financial investment, effort, or trouble on your part. All that is required from you is to abstain from an activity with no compelling justification. Would any reasonable person neglect such an opportunity? Surely, it seems obvious that any other option would be patently unethical? Although many layers of empirical evidence and argument are ladled on top, these questions form the logical core of moral philosopher David Benatar’s incisive 2006 book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Within its pages, Benatar offers a programmatic and detailed defense of anti-natalism—the idea that procreating is morally wrong because human lives are, on balance, so awful that such lives are not worth starting. For Benatar, a set of immutable asymmetries characterize all sentient life: between pleasure and pain, or well-being and harm, in which the latter are more frequent, permanent, and consequential …

Who’s Afraid of Ludwig Wittgenstein? Explaining the Lack of Women in Philosophy

While criticism surrounding gender disparity in academia often is concentrated on STEM fields, there is at least one liberal-arts discipline in which the underrepresentation of women is equally as stark: philosophy. While women outnumber men in the humanities, U.S. survey data suggests they earn fewer than 30 percent of the Ph.D.s in philosophy. The philosophy gender gap garnered public attention in 2013, when the sexual harassment case of Colin McGinn, a philosophy professor at the University of Miami, was featured on the front page of The New York Times. The Times then solicited a series of op-eds from female philosophers to get their take on the issue. In one, titled “Women and Philosophy? You do the Math,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sally Haslanger complained that most philosophers are “white men,” and that the small number of women is both “inexcusable” and “appalling.” She then went on to claim that female philosophers also face sexual harassment, “alienation,” “loneliness,” “implicit bias,” “stereotype threat,” “microaggression,” and “outright discrimination.” Since then, philosophy departments have been scrambling to address …

Deepities and the Politics of Pseudo-Profundity

The word deepity, coined by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, refers to a phrase that seems true and profound but is actually ambiguous and shallow. Not to be confused with lies, clichés, truisms, contradictions, metaphors, or aphorisms, deepities occupy a linguistic niche of their own. The distinguishing feature of a deepity is that it has two possible interpretations. On the first reading, a deepity is true but trivial. On the second, it’s false but would be mind-blowing if it were true.  Consider, for instance, the phrase “love is just a word.” On one reading, this is true but trivial. It’s no deep insight that “love”—like “Ethiopia” or “subdermatoglyphic” or “word”—is just a word in the English language. But on a second reading, “love is just a word” asserts something mind-blowing if true: there is no emotion called “love,” and everyone who thinks they’ve felt love is either lying or self-deceived. If true, this would change everything we thought we knew about our emotional lives. But it’s plainly false. Whatever love is—an emotion, an illusion, a pattern …

Effective vs. Pathological Altruism

The effective altruism movement grew out of an understanding that sometimes charitable giving doesn’t achieve its desired effects. Even when aid works, effective altruists argue that aid can be given more efficiently through the application of cost-benefit analysis. Effective altruism enjoys widespread support, including among Quillette readers ranging from Sam Harris to Geoffrey Miller. In fact, it’s hard to deny that if we’re inclined to act charitably, we should follow our head as much as our heart. We should subject charity to scrutiny. When Helping Hurts The problem comes when the view we take of what we’re trying to achieve becomes too myopic. For example, we all agree that if we’re going to relieve a famine, we should find the cheapest way to feed the famished. But what if feeding the hungry creates more hungry people to feed? What if it indirectly contributes to more civil conflict, enriches warlords, or interferes with agricultural markets in ways that drive domestic farmers out of business? Recent studies suggest that food aid to African countries has done all …