All posts filed under: Philosophy

Understanding Postmodern Conservatism: A Reply To Aaron Hanlon

“Truth is Not Truth” ~Rudy Giuliani, Meet the Press, August 20, 2018 On August 31, the Washington Post published an interesting opinion piece entitled “Postmodernism Didn’t Cause Trump. It Explains Him” by Professor Aaron Hanlon, an Assistant Professor of English at Colby College. In his article, Professor Hanlon referred to my May 17 article for Quillette, “The Rise and Emergence of Postmodern Conservatism” as an example of a prominent tendency on to “blame” postmodernism for the rise of Trumpism. Hanlon describes this tendency at length midway through the article. I will quote him in full to avoid misrepresenting his position: Today, critics on both Left and Right are happy to wave their fingers at postmodern theory, so long as they can blame it for the Trump electorate’s unprecedented disregard for the truth. In Quillette—an online magazine obsessed with the evils of ‘critical theory’ and postmodernism—Matt McManus reflects on “The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism.” From the Right, David Ernst contends that “Trump Is The First President To Turn Postmodernism Against Itself .” And from the Left, Kakutani recently wrote in the Guardian: “Relativism has …

What Is the Law?

Recent debates about the looming appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court have once again indicated the depth of disagreement amongst American jurists and politicians about what legal officials should do and which legal interpretations are valid. Should a state have an interventionist Court or a restrained one? Is an interventionist Court one that takes a pragmatic approach to the law, or one that stresses paying attention to the so called ‘original meaning’ of legal texts? The intensity of these debates reflects the power granted to many legal officials in the American constitutional order. At different times, judges have handed down enormously consequential decisions that impact the way civil rights are understood, determine whether or not abortion will be legal and accessible, help us to understand the structure of American democracy, and so on. Americans are not alone in deliberating on these hot button issues—criticism of the power of legal officials, and discussion about what constitutes legitimate legal interpretation, also rage in Canada and on the European continent. These debates belie deeper and more complex questions …

The New McCarthyism: Blacklisting in Academia

Blacklisting is back. In the days of Joe McCarthy, Hollywood screen writers and actors were the targets. Today, it is University professors accused of sexual harassment. Being accused is enough to destroy a professor’s career. Even speaking out against a false accusation can be dangerous, as I found out. One of the most widely discussed cases involves the philosopher Colin McGinn, who resigned from the University of Miami after the University accused him of failing to report a romantic, non-sexual relationship with a 26 year old graduate student.  The University did not accuse him of sexual harassment. Yet bloggers accused him and this was enough to get McGinn disinvited from conferences and speaking engagements, and blacklisted in the profession. In 2015, the student making the initial complaint filed a lawsuit against the University of Miami, McGinn, and me. I had commented on the case and was accused of defamation. The Judge dismissed all charges against me with prejudice and none of us were found liable for any of the student’s claims. Despite his legal victory, …

Religions, Nations, and Other Useful Fictions

In the age of Neo-Darwinian synthesis between natural selection and Mendelian genetics, it appears increasingly impossible to give credence to any idea metaphysical, spiritual, or religious. The dualism of Rene Descartes—a world reduced to machinery and a separate soul, to “measure and number” combined with Christian theology—was the origin of our modern worldview. But it has been entirely exorcised, emptied of soul and Christianity, respecting only the machine underneath. It has become common sense to consider the human subject as little more than a machine, or a computer. Subjectivity itself is a curse, expelled by theories in the philosophy of mind such as Daniel Dennett’s inclination to consider consciousness itself “an illusion.” Sam Harris has said that “consciousness is the only thing that cannot possibly be an illusion.” Harris is right, but Dennett understands more clearly the stakes for materialist philosophy. As the world grows more mechanical, religious inclination is produced from the merciless rack of empiricism and positivism. New ways of contextualizing religious belief have emerged from the tradition of Christian existentialism, which dates …

Is There Anybody In There?—Derek Parfit’s Criticism of the Self

Dedicated to the Memory of Connor O’Callaghan The recent passing of a very good friend of mine, to whom this article is dedicated, has prompted me to reflect more deeply on certain philosophical questions about who were are and what really matters. Few contemporary philosophers have done more to challenge conventional answers to such questions than Derek Parfit, who tragically passed away on January 1, 2017. Though his work was not as widely known by the general public as other intellectual luminaries, his brilliant philosophical insights and imagination deserve a wider audience. This article on Parfit’s criticism of the self and personal identity is intended to make a small contribution to that goal. Parfit’s work divided into two related set of concerns. Firstly, Parfit was concerned with the perplexing question of the self and personal identity. Do we have self? If so, what is it? Does the self possess any value? And so on. His philosophical examination of these issues were presented in seminal works such as his 1971 paper “Personal Identity” and his now …

The Peculiar Opacity of Jordan Peterson’s Religious Views

During a recent conversation in Vancouver—the first night of a massive four-part event sponsored by Pangburn Philosophy—Sam Harris asked Jordan Peterson a question that he can never quite answer: “What do you mean by God?” If you’ve ever heard Peterson discuss the subject or read either of his books, the answers he provided in Vancouver will not surprise you. God is “how we imaginatively and collectively represent the existence and action of consciousness across time.” God is “that which eternally dies and is reborn in the pursuit of higher being and truth.” God is “the highest value in the hierarchy of values.” God is the “voice of conscience.” God is the “source of judgment and mercy and guilt.” God is the “future to which we make sacrifices and something akin to the trascendental repository of reputation.” God is “that which selects among men in the eternal hierarchy of men.” It went on like this for awhile, but you get the idea. Or do you? Peterson’s definition of God is a sprawling, book-length collection of abstractions, …

Is Service-Learning a Disservice to Philosophy?

Karl Marx once groused that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” He might have been pleased to learn that some philosophers now teach, and advocate for, courses that contain significant activist elements. Pedagogy that includes service projects outside the classroom are often denominated “service-learning.” One variation currently being piloted, “Engaged Philosophy,” gives students autonomy over planning, implementing, and writing about a service project of their choice.1 The Engaged Philosophy website showcases successful projects. For example: Vanessa made crafts and sold them to raise money for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She also collected scarves for the homeless and tied them around trees in downtown Minneapolis. Two students worked with local Starbucks managers to get their coffee shops to compost and have clearer recycling signs. Two students brought dogs from a local shelter, Indigo Rescue, to campus during midterms to help students relieve stress. They also collected money for the shelter and raised awareness about dog adoption. Although service-learning has yet to become mainstream …

Understanding and Misunderstanding ‘Dog-Whistling’

Accusations of ‘dog-whistling‘ are commonplace in contemporary politics. Politicians and pundits regularly accuse each other of using apparently benign words and phrases to conceal dreadful meanings. It is, however, chiefly the Left that accuses that Right of dog-whistling, and mostly to disclose and denounce the supposed racism lurking in conservative language. President Trump is a lightning rod for such accusations, which have, however, also struck politicans in Australia and the United Kingdom.  But in spite of the ubiquity of these accusations, it is not clear what dog-whistling is. We might understand dog-whistling as a form of coded communication, by which a political leader passes a secret message to a specific audience without the larger public picking up what he means. Or we might see it as a form of strategic ambiguity by which a speaker allows different constituencies to understand him in different ways. Considered yet another way, dog-whistling could appear as a kind of subliminal method of activating listeners’ unconscious prejudices. Philosopher Jennifer Saul is developing a fruitful analysis of dog-whistling, which she breaks …

Does Progress Exist?

I should start with a caveat. This article discusses an issue which reaches well beyond the scope of a couple of thousand words or so, and as such will provoke questions and challenges which cannot be addressed within these limits. The argument presented, being downstream of some more fundamental principles not covered here, is necessarily incomplete, and therefore I don’t mean to present it as a slam-dunk refutation of progress (it falls well short of that), but merely as a curio; a piece of argumentation that hopefully amuses even as you conjure ways to disagree with it. Moreover, contrary to the ‘anti-progress’ tenor of much that follows, I actually mean to provide a template that allows for more effective innovation—a consequence that I hope will become clear by the end of the piece. So, does progress exist? Clearly I’m going to argue that it does not, since otherwise this would be a pretty redundant piece. However I should point out up front that this isn’t to say that things can’t get better, and haven’t been …

Why Should We Be Good?

Today we are witnessing an irrepressible and admirable pushback against the specters of ‘cultural relativism’ and moral ‘nihilism.’ On the Right, thinkers such as Patrick Deneen and Jordan Peterson have responded to an increasingly cynical postmodern culture by arguing for a return to traditionalist and/or local values. More centrist thinkers such as Steven Pinker and Sam Harris have argued for a return to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on using reason and its handmaiden, empirical science, to develop an ever more objective set of ethical norms. And even on the far-Left, radical thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have levelled scathing attacks against postmodern relativism and ‘totalitarian’ identity politics, calling for a return to ethics properly understood: Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere. For many observers and critics, this is a wholly positive development since both have the corrosive effect of undermining ethical certainty. I think there are two motivations behind this disdain for relativism and moral nihilism: one of which is negative …