Category Archives: Philosophy

A Thinking Person’s Country

graphic of library at university of leyden

At the moment, the headline’s referent is Ireland. Evidence? The President of Ireland is able to say in public that education isn’t about getting a job or supporting the economy, positions that are mostly unheard on this side of the Atlantic.

Too many policy lobbyists have, often unknowingly, unthinkingly perhaps, accepted a narrow and utilitarian view of… education — one that suggests we exist to be made useful — which leads to a great loss of the capacity to critically evaluate, question and challenge.

Rather than give all the attention to STEM disciplines, as is the trend in the U.S., Ireland started the philosophy awards as an alternative. The organizers also have devoted some energy to providing resources for teachers: “The website created by Daniel Mccrea contains 40 “ready to go” lessons for teachers whether or not they have had prior experience in philosophy.”



Who is Hans Blumenberg?

The editors of the Blog of the American Philosophical Association, particularly Nathan Oseroff, have been kind enough to publish my essay about Hans Blumenberg. The piece is intended for those unacquainted with the man and his works. The online publication of the essay serves also as an opportunity to thank the people working in the Interlibrary Loan department at the University of Texas at Arlington Library. They provide the treasures of research.

photo of Hans Blumenberg

Socrates on Stage

photo of Dave Quay, actor in play about Socrates

Today is the opening of the play Socrates at The Public Theater in NYC. The editors of the Blog of the American Philosophical Association were kind enough to publish my article about the play. The article includes a brief interview with one of the main actors, Dave Quay (photograph above).

My Mother the Car

“Values count far more than economics or geography” — Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift

The latest Vanity Fair (March 2019) shows its readers a “messenger bag” with a flap on which “Christian Dior” is spelled out in all caps. It’s a $3,200 US bag, so you’d want the world to know that “name,” and the capitals scream the wearer’s intention. This way of speaking/screaming through our things is so common that it’s almost impossible to buy clothing, for example, that doesn’t have some kind of logo or brand name in a conspicuous place. It looks as if the practice is so common that people have ceased thinking about it. No one thought it odd months ago that the First Lady wore a jacket with an unmissable message on the back. I wondered at the time whether anyone was going to resurrect Fran Lebowitz’s essay about “clothes with pictures.” Lebowitz writes, “Frankly, I for one would not be unhappy if most people expressed themselves by marching en masse into the nearest large body of water but, barring that, I wish they would at least stop attempting to tell all by word of jacket. I mean, be realistic. If people don’t want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?”

Fran Lebowitz’s piece suggests the equation: My Character = My Things. More and more people have commodified themselves, made their character the equivalent of the accumulated brands surrounding them, a version of the post-human the post-human theorists seem to have missed.

An acquaintance remarked a few years ago that she was worried about maintaining payments on her Infinity SUV, because driving that car showed her to be “a quality person.” Whether the Infinity was a good vehicle, i.e., reliable, fuel-efficient, meant nothing juxtaposed to what an Infinity accomplished for her status. She had absorbed the capitalist message that by osmosis, or some other magical process (like “provenance” on “Antiques Roadshow”), a brand transfers its alleged qualities onto the person associated with the object, or vice versa.

photo of Detective ColomboPart of this phenomenon is not peculiar to our time. Some readers might recall “Colombo,” a detective series started in the 1970s that played on the same effect described above from the opposite direction. The characters interacting with Colombo would misread his intelligence, his worth, because he dressed in shabby clothes, drove a dilapidated 1959 Peugeot, and claimed to be stumbling through his job. Yet, Colombo’s success as a detective did not seem to cause people to want to duplicate those lessons about economic life from the show (say, in the way Nero Wolfe has a Wolfe Pack). Colombo wannabes never reached a level anyone would label “trending.” Few want to be on Colombo’s side of the status divide.

Colombo knows how to rub people’s noses in the emptiness of value, to undermine, for instance, the importance of the original/copy distinction, so precious to Plato:

image of dialogue from Colombo detective series

Status is the buzzword in the recent university admissions stories. An “admissions consultant,” a title that’s a clue to how putrid things have become in higher education, published a piece in The Washington Post in which she confirmed what the “Colombo” series teaches about the thoughtless craving for status.

One brilliant programmer I worked with had been recruited by Google more than once after winning several online code jams; the company didn’t realize he was still in high school. But he also had a C on his transcript from an ultracompetitive private high school in the Bay Area, which supposedly meant he couldn’t get into the universities his parents wanted him to attend. “I’m already a failure,” he told me. “I don’t even think I can get into college.”

Moments like these, equally frustrating and heartbreaking, were common. I tried to reassure students that there was a school for everyone and often asked them what it was about elite universities that they believed would make such a difference in their lives. Most couldn’t tell me, and it seemed to be that getting in was what mattered, along with the instant status that comes with a brand name school.

It’s worth going over again that Abby Mims asked students to explain why admission to an elite university mattered, and most had no response. Thinking takes time, the kind of time not involved in instant status. It would be like asking why someone spent $3,200 US on a bag with big letters on it. The answer is right there on the bag in capital letters. Claude Shannon himself couldn’t have introduced less noise into the communicative system.

The point of admission to an elite university is not to take advantage of the possibilities for learning at such places; it’s simply to tell others that you attended “X.” We have a person in a position high up in the U.S. government who went to an “X,” but has gone to extraordinary lengths to hide how he performed at “X.” To question that is to miss the point of value, which rests in the uttering or the seeing of a name with magical properties. “Abracadabra” takes too long to spit out anyway. “USC” is shorter and gets the job of status done much faster, almost instantaneously. Ask Anna Sorokin.

You will be better off leaving the literalists to themselves, those people who see “Christian Dior,” or “Infinity,” or “USC,” and conclude the person they associate with that name is a “person of quality.” Think how fun it would be to hang around someone non-literal-minded, like Colombo, who tells this kind of story:

“There was this lady walking down Beverly Drive, and coming the other way, this flasher guy in his overcoat. When he gets up to her, he whips open the coat. She looks at him and says, ‘You call that a lining?'”

photo of Colombo's car

Detective Colombo’s car


The Haunting Ambiguity of E pluribus unum

“Out of many, one” is a phrase recognizable to most Americans. Its interpretation is another story. Some libertarians, family-first folks, and capitalists seem to lean toward emphasizing the last part of the phrase. The one, I, me and mine — that’s what comes first, and everyone else can go to hell. You might know stores that sell signs with such sayings to nail above bomb shelters and prepper-pads.

You witness that interpretation enacted in small ways everyday in things like road rage, or on the news each “black Friday” when people trample one another to purchase before others some trending tchotchke.

photo of poster for An Inspector CallsHowever, another reading of E pluribus unum puts the weight on the prepositional phrase, as if everything that follows is dependent on the “out of” section. “The “e” in E pluribus unum is a truncated “ex.” The one is there only thanks to the many. It’s the sense of the phrase underscored in J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, a work that ought to be required viewing for every small business owner and CEO. The play must be witnessed to appreciate the story’s power. Its genius is in the unfolding, the ways in which people improvise justifications for their separation from others, for their personal success stories, for their expressions of blamelessness.

We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.
— The Inspector in An Inspector Calls

The Daffy Duck fans (“its mine, mine, all mine”) demonstrate a capacity for recognizing that the world they inhabit is not the result of only their contributions. You will see members of that crowd expressing appreciation to military people for their service, perhaps an acknowledgment that others are responsible for their freedom. For some reason, the crowd cannot extrapolate that logic to the rest of life. I wonder whether a disclaimer by a Japanese worker would make sense to Daffy & Co.: “I don’t make the soy sauce. The microorganisms make it. I just create an environment where they can thrive.”

The Japanese man’s disclaimer echoes a lesson Bertolt Brecht offers through his not-famous-enough poem “A Worker’s View of History.”

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?

Disrupting the ideology of capitalism isn’t a welcome activity, and it looks as if having the opposition modeled for you won’t necessarily be effective. James O’Toole’s The Enlightened Capitalists contains the evidence.

[The author] profiles a $3 billion maker of welding products, Lincoln Electric, which he calls the “nation’s greatest continuing corporate success story.” Founder James Lincoln, who ran the company from 1920 to 1965, “firmly believed the world’s greatest untapped resources were the abilities of the millions of undereducated and untrained men and women trapped in social systems and work organizations in which they had no opportunity to develop, or exercise, their potential.” Since 1947, Lincoln Electric hasn’t laid off a single worker, and for more than 80 years it has paid bonuses to its workers averaging 40 to 100 percent of their annual salaries.

But even Lincoln was a failure in the sense that he did not inspire widespread emulation. “James Lincoln spent a great deal of time attempting to explain his company’s unusual practices to all manner of doubters, skeptics and critics, few of whom he appears ever to have convinced,” writes O’Toole. “What he would not — or could not — acknowledge was the reality that other business leaders were not interested in adopting his system.”



The Hilarity of Hegel

photo of box of finger puppetsPerhaps only Kant surpasses Hegel among famous philosophers lacking a sense of humor. As anyone who has studied philosophy knows, the absence of a sense of humor doesn’t mean the philosopher will be dissuaded from writing a theory of comedy, as Hegel did.

While it seems a waste of time searching through Hegel for yucks, making jokes by invoking Hegel is, according to a new book, a way for upper class types in the workplace to practice their sprezzatura.

Friedman and Laurison’s interviews illustrate the power of “studied informality” – essentially the way in which working class ways of being have been ruthlessly appropriated by the upper middle-class as a way to make money and cachet from authenticity. 6TV’s commissioners pride themselves on programming that connects with “real people”, living “real lives” in ‘real places’. At the company’s gladiatorial commissioning meetings, where programme ideas get thrashed out, the most coveted skill is a kind of highbrow banter. You can proclaim, as one commissioner does, that “We’re talking about TV … it’s not Hegel!”, but you still have to know who Hegel is and to know how to get a laugh out of bringing up his name.


Why People Don’t Run Toward Wokeness

Writing for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Cynthia Lazaroff reflects on her experience with the “false alarm” that happened in Hawaii last January. Lazaroff explains that you can know X intellectually, but the road to understanding X can be one you’d prefer not to travel:

The experience of feeling that you are about to be hit by a nuclear missile makes it absolutely clear what is most precious.

I had already had the intellectual awakening, about the details of nuclear weapons and the nuclear threat, from all the top experts. But I didn’t know what it felt like in my gut—until I went through those 38 minutes.  Even with everything I knew about nuclear war, and nuclear weapons, and Hiroshima, and fallout, and nuclear winter, nuclear war was unimaginable to me—until I went through these 38 minutes.

And now the terror, and the risk, and the need to change our nuclear policy, the need to wake up, the need to realize that we’re in this danger and to do something about it—that mandate, that knowledge, that responsibility … is with me.