All posts filed under: Philosophy

The Purposeless Society

Humans are wired to think in terms of purposeful social agents and their objectives, and to tell themselves stories. In every culture, there are myths that tell its members who they are and how they relate to one another, that help to structure life and give it order. The idea that there is a crisis facing the West is by no means unique to conservatives. Classical liberals and technocrats lament the rise of populism and the loss of faith in their policy prescriptions, while progressives claim that the societies in which they live are built on foundations of violence, and must therefore be destroyed and remade. Conservatives place the genesis of the problem further back. Where others see systems and structures that must be dismantled or that are under attack, conservatives believe that the dismantling has already occurred and that we are now suffering the consequences. The destruction of traditional social structures with their strictures and obligations divides the world into two groups. The first experience it as a liberation of the individual, and use …

Modern Europe and the Enlightenment—A Review

A review of Modern Europe and the Enlightenment by Rumy Hasan. Sussex Academic Press, 240 pages (May 2021). In a June 2019 interview given to the Financial Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin brashly declared that the liberal idea had outlived its purpose. He supported this claim by noting that the public had rejected ostensibly “liberal” European policy stances on immigration, open borders, and multiculturalism. In his new book, Modern Europe and the Enlightenment, social scientist Rumy Hasan rigorously explores whether the aforementioned positions really are consonant with liberal democracy and the Enlightenment values that underpin it, and concludes that Putin was burning a straw man. If Hasan is correct, then the entire configuration of the political board game has been misconstrued. This makes his argument pivotal to understanding how well (or poorly) the rhetorical labels ascribed to political policies fit their substance. Modern Europe and the Enlightenment opens by presenting a balanced examination and robust summary of Enlightenment values. Hasan diligently charts counter-Enlightenment influences in Europe, whether in the cultural relativism of soi-disant liberals, the …

Six Great Ideas from Adam Grant’s ‘Think Again’

A review of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant. Viking Press, 320 pages (February 2021). Of everything a person must maintain, his mind is most important, and king of all is his connection to reality. Yet, our tether to the world can be tenuous. Our ideas, particularly our most fundamental ones, help us make sense of the world. But if they’re wrong, they completely shift the image, like a turn of the kaleidoscope. Nature is no child’s toy, though, and to be commanded, it must be obeyed. So, as much as we hate to feel the ground move beneath our feet, we have real incentives to get things right, even if that means upending ideas we’ve held for decades. And, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant, the trait of regularly rethinking one’s beliefs, big and small, is what puts the best thinkers a cut above the rest. In fact, a propensity toward frequent and flexible rethinking in the face of new evidence may even outstrip IQ as an …

Lived Experiences Aren’t Special

Some time ago I found myself in the middle of a discussion about race relations and minority experiences. When it was my chance to speak, I mentioned some statistical data that appeared to challenge the common narrative that racism is widespread and systemic. My interlocutor’s reply was that he simply did not care about the data—his own experiences as a person of color were more important and trumped any appeal to statistics. Another party to the discussion agreed, saying that people matter more than numbers. The title of a recent article by Dawn Butler, a British MP, echoes this sentiment: “Unless you have lived experience of racism there’s no guarantee you’ll understand it.” A host of other politicians have leveraged appeals to lived experience in support of their policy goals. Elsewhere, a reporter for Time describes her lived experiences as a “source of expertise” as opposed to an “emotional bias.” Lived experiences have taken on a near-sacred status under which they cannot be questioned. Case in point: the Facebook group for the news website Vox …

Identity and the Self in ‘Hamlet’

“Who’s there?” These are the two words that begin Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is primarily this question, and not “To be or not to be?” with which Hamlet wrestles throughout the play. The two words are spoken from one soldier to another; Elsinore’s castle guards are on the midnight shift, and on the face of it, the words simply set the stage for the time and place. (Shakespeare’s theatre had limited technology for special effects and set pieces, so atmosphere had to be invoked entirely with words.) But on another level, one that Shakespeare clearly intended, the question is an existential one, as is the more confounding response of the other watchman: “Nay, answer me. Stand, and unfold yourself.” This call-and-response poses a number of questions. Who are other people? How can we know that what others reveal to us is the real them? How do I “unfold” myself to others? Who am I, under my “folds”? Am I what I show others? Something deep within? Is my identity a series of socially constructed layers? Or …

James Baldwin and the Trouble with Protest Literature

“The hardest thing in the world to do,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a 1934 article for Esquire, “is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn and anybody is cheating who takes politics as a way out.” Of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, he quipped, “see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are.” Hemingway was not discounting the political, merely clarifying its relationship to literature. “Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.” Be it a piece …

The Hard Problems of Vegetarianism

“We have to speak up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves,” wrote the famous utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer in Animal Liberation, the book that converted me (and countless others) to vegetarianism more than 10 years ago. You don’t have to buy into Singer’s pain-and-pleasure calculus to find the moral force of his argument compelling: Humans are gratuitously inflicting pain and suffering on intelligent, sentient creatures for no other reason than because they enjoy the taste of their meat, the texture of their skin, or the softness of their fur. They do so even though they know they could, at a small cost to themselves, live without it, and even though they share a virtually universal conviction that it is wrong to cause harm for trivial reasons. And yet, vegans and vegetarians remain a small minority. Almost all of this meat, leather, and fur is being produced in factory farms that deprive animals of most of what would make their lives worth living. Driven by the relentless logic of profit-maximization, we curb the …

The Journal of Controversial Ideas Is Here

The long-awaited first issue of Journal of Controversial Ideas (JCI), which allows academics of all disciplines to publish peer-reviewed research anonymously, has just been released. In an editorial leading the online issue, the co-editors, philosophers Peter Singer, Francesca Minerva, and Jeff McMahan, write: “By permitting publication under a pseudonym, we hope to enable authors to fulfil their duty to pursue the truth without putting their careers or physical or mental security at risk. Intellectual and moral progress should not require heroes or martyrs.” All three co-editors have courted controversy, especially Singer and Minerva. Singer has for decades been subject to denunciation for his views on abortion, animal rights, and disability. In 2012, Minerva was inundated with hate mail for an article she coauthored defending “post-birth abortion.” Both have received death threats. In Singer’s and Minerva’s cases, though, the heat came mainly from outraged non-academics. More recently, threats to free speech at universities have come from within. In their editorial, Singer, Minerva, and McMahan draw attention to: …a surge in open letters and petitions denouncing researchers …

Splendid Triviality: Philosophy, Art, and Sport in a Time of Crisis

One of my philosophy professors in college remarked that philosophy flourishes in a time of decline or crisis. No, that doesn’t mean that philosophers all secretly pray for catastrophes. But it is true that darker times call for philosophical reflection and that philosophy, like the arts, might have something to offer the human spirit when things cease to make sense. A crisis certainly seems to bring out the worst in us, and it’s hard not to wonder if Hobbes was right about human nature. Certainly many of the headlines from the current crisis document the endless depths of human selfishness. The man in Tennessee who stockpiled 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer and sold them at exorbitant prices comes to mind. But we have also seen stories of courageous selflessness in the service of others, from healthcare workers risking their own lives to young people delivering food to the sequestered elderly. If you read the introduction to the Decameron, set in Italy during the 14th-century plague, it’s clear that, in Boccaccio’s estimation, the bad outweighed the …

The Transhumanist Case for Liberty

Circa 441 BCE, Sophocles set down on papyrus (most likely) his famous “Ode To Man,” a countdown of human masteries: He navigates. He cultivates. He domesticates. He preys on all but is prey to none. He crafts words for thoughts, constructs shelters, and forms states. “He has made himself secure from all but one; in the late wind of death, he cannot stand.” That last line resonates across time and circumstance, faith and culture, the rise and fall of civilizations. What joins us to homo sapiens, past and present, is not merely the fact, but the recognition, that our days are numbered, that our expiration date is real, that we’re careening headlong toward the end of the line. What if it were not so? As I write these lines, scientists, theorists, technicians, entrepreneurs, and even a few kooks are laboring independently toward radical life extension, with an eye on the ultimate prize: the eradication of death. Their approaches vary wildly. From gene-editing, to growing organs for transplant, to 3D-printing nonvascularized tissue, to implanting brain-computer interfaces, …