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France. Paris et Banlieue. Graffiti, bombages, inscription et affiche dans les fac et les rue autour de mai 1968

In Freedom Evolves, Dennett suggests– if I understand him correctly –that while everything is causally determined, our belief that we are free is nonetheless crucial because beliefs are themselves causal forces.  It’s been a long time since I read the text, but if my recollection is accurate, he gives the example of learning how to play the guitar.  If I believe I will never be able to learn the guitar, then I will never learn the guitar.  I will not make the effort, and, indeed, as Fink somewhere suggests, my unconscious might even lead my thought to become clouded when trying to learn these things.  The belief is itself a causal influence in what I am capable of doing.  Where the belief is lacking, my doubt will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  This is not, of course, to suggest that should I believe I can learn how to play the guitar I will become Jimmy Hendrix, only that without the belief that I can learn, I will never learn.

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Today I learned that my high school English teacher, Miriam Rapport, died back in June of 2015.  My heart aches with the knowledge that she has passed from the world, but I am also filled with fond memories.  She was a Jewish woman of Russian descent, and spoke often of what her family had been through both in Russia and during the war.  She was uncompromising in what she expected from us, who was charmingly cantankerous, and who had a quick, sarcastic wit and a profound love of teaching and her students.  In many respects, Mrs. Rapport taught me how to read.  Our class would sit in a large circle, reading Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Beowulf, and so many other things line by line.  She shared my love of the existentialists and directed me to a variety of things to read.  She introduced me to Dostoevsky and Kafka.  I would describe Mrs. Rapport’s theory of reading as “paranoid”.  “Everything, down to the most insignificant detail”, she would say, “is there for a reason and the task of a reading is to uncover why it is there.”  She would then add, “the author might not have known that reason nor intended that thing, but nonetheless, that purple umbrella somehow contributes to the text.”  Clearly she had read the French literary theorists.  That was her theory of reading, and it is one that I have carried with me ever since whether it comes to critiquing novels, films, or television shows.  There is a reason Bruce Willis’s character is hitting golf balls from an oil rig at a Greenpeace at the beginning of Armageddon.  It is part of the key to understanding the entire film.  It is not merely an amusing plot point.

The opening paragraphs of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics always leave me speechless due to their strangeness.  Aristotle famously writes,

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly ever action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.  But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them.  Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities.  Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth [sic? in other translations, I’ve seen this passage discuss household management, not wealth; this seems to be an anachronistic reading of ancient understandings of economics, coming as it does from oikos, which refers to the home].  But where such arts fall under a single capacity– as bridle-making and other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others– in all of these the ends of the master art are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued.  It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

So far so good.  Everything Aristotle here says is clear enough and I marvel at the clarity and systematicity of his thought process.  It is the next paragraph that gets strange.  He continues,

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.  Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life?  Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should?  If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object.  It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art.

Now comes the startling sentence that brings everything to a grinding halt.

And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man.  For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete both to attain and to preserve; for though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states.  These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry, being concerned with politics, aims.  (The Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume II, 1729 – 30)

I distinctly recall the shock I experienced decades ago upon reading the second paragraph of the Nicomachean Ethics.  Such a reaction, I think, calls for an interpretation both of the text and my assumptions at the time.  Why was this claim so startling to me.  Part of the issue, of course, has to do with the title of the Nicomachean Ethics.  “Ethics”, the title says.  I opened the text expecting a treatise on right moral or ethical conduct; yet now, suddenly, the great Aristotle was telling me that this was a treatise on politics.  At the time I must have thought that ethics and politics were two separate realms, that they were distinct issues and domains of inquiry, yet here I was being told that they are interrelated; or, to put the matter more forcibly, that ethics is the domain of the political.  I have more to say about this “mysterious” claim in a moment.

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In my intro philosophy courses I would say that one of my main priorities is to persuade my students that ideas matter.  The argument is drawn from Plato and is very simple.  Many actions– I say many, not all because any number of things can lead us to act –are based on our beliefs.  A belief is simply any statement that can be true or false.  Knowledge, if it exists, is one variety or species of belief; whereas opinion is another species of belief.  I keep it basic at this point.  “Opinion” is not synonymous with “subjective”, but is rather a conviction or belief that we hold to be true without knowing the demonstration for that belief.  In short, as problematic as it is, I take Plato’s thesis from Theatetus that knowledge is “justified true belief” when introducing this claim.  Thus, for example, I have the opinion that the earth orbits about the sun.  If, in my case, this is an opinion, then this is because while I believe it to be true, I can’t provide the demonstration that it is true.  I believe this claim based on hearsay and authority.  By contrast, the astronomer down the hallway from me has knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun because she can provide the demonstration for this belief or the supporting evidence.

We see a dramatic example of this thesis in Plato’s Euthyphro.  Euthyphro is at the porch of King Archon to prosecute his father for murder.  One of his father’s servants had gotten drunk and killed another servant.  His father bound the servant and threw him in a ditch and sent another servant to get the proper authorities to determine what to do with him.  While they were waiting for the authorities, the servant died from hunger, his bonds, and exposure to the elements.  Euthyphro classifies this death as murder (it looks more like manslaughter, however, and this is significant as the two crimes carry different penalties).  However, when Socrates asks Euthyphro why he would do such a thing to his own father, he calmly responds that it is his religious or pious duty to do so.  It is his beliefs about piety that lead to his action (prosecuting his father).  Socrates seems to think that Euthyphro’s action will only be ethical or moral if he can demonstrates that he has a knowledge of piety, rather than a mere opinion.  Why?  Opinions can be mistaken and thereby lead to mistaken action that harms others.  What commences is a sort of philosophical therapy where Socrates patiently attempts to demonstrate that Euthyphro is in a state of ignorance, that he suffers from a sort of hubris, and that because he doesn’t genuinely know what piety is, he should refrain from action.

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Perhaps the greatest challenge to a wilderness ontology or the thesis that being is without any form of transcendent supplement or that there is only nature, even at the heart of culture, is the way in which such a claim tends to devalue all “higher” values.  Let’s take the case of Epicurus as filtered through Lucretius.  Having heroically concluded that only material reality exists, that all of reality is composed of combinations of atoms in the void, and having thereby concluded that the self is the body and that therefore there is no afterlife, the sole aims of the good life become ataraxia (roughly, tranquility) and aponia (freedom from pain and suffering).  As Quine taught us, there is a web of beliefs and beliefs are dependent upon other beliefs.  If I’m an atomistic materialist, then this entails that I am also committed to some variant of physicalism where the nature of the self is concerned, and if I am a physicalist about the self this has consequences at the level of praxis:  the good life, the moral life, will be devoted to diminishing those things that trouble my mind and to reducing my suffering.  The moral good will be pleasure– and pleasures will be varied, ranging from the pleasures of sensation, to intellectual pleasures, to aesthetic pleasures, and social pleasures –and the moral bad or wrong will be pain.  We find a variant of this kind of ethic in Spinoza as well.

Anything that diminishes my ataraxia will be morally wrong, and anything that increases my pain will be morally wrong.  Of course, there will be caveats to this moral framework.  Some pleasures will be worth foregoing or avoiding because either a) they cause pain as a consequence (I shouldn’t drink or do drugs because of their health effects and, at the very least, the hangover the next day), or b) because they’re just too much trouble to get.  The life of luxury, for example, might seem very pleasurable, but the sort of labor I have to do to get these luxuries actually destroys my ability to enjoy them and fills me with stress that destroys my ataraxia or tranquility.  Conversely, there are some pains that are worth enduring because they give greater health, security, freedom, pleasure, or tranquility.  While exercise is painful, it is nonetheless good to exercise because it has tremendous psychological benefits combatting depression and anxiety (thereby increasing ataraxia), gives us energy, and improves our overall health.  It might be painful and unpleasant at the time, but the benefits outweigh that pain.  If we were to ask the epicurean whether or not it is moral to be a racist, she would no doubt respond that it is not, but not because racism hurts other people, but because racism hurts the racist.  Hate disturbs our tranquility by filling us with feelings that we are in danger from the other, that they’re getting a free ride, that they’re violating decency, etc.  If the racist wants a good life, they would do well to change their beliefs so that their minds aren’t troubled by, to use Spinoza’s terminology, “sad passions”.

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Perhaps it could be said that the dream of philosophy, both in its origin and teleology, is atheistic.  Having written this sentence, I already regret it, because I know it invites misunderstanding.  We must not equate atheism with the vulgar thought of the so-called “new atheists”.  Even where philosophy strives to prove the existence of God or of gods– have any philosophers ever attempted to do the latter? –it is still atheistic.  Already this observation should indicate that the air, the atmosphere, is very different than what the new atheists propose in declaring that the dream of philosophy is atheistic.  No, to claim that the dream of philosophy is atheistic is to declare a certain faith in the powers and capacities of logos.  The cry of philosophy everywhere where it happens is that there is only and everywhere the wilderness, that the world is enough, and that logos, reason, has the power to guide us.  We will be so audacious that we will even proclaim that what logos is is itself a question.  In short, the cry of philosophy is that we do not need transcendent supplements to justify life, to give it meaning, and, above all, to justify the good life. We do not need dreary threats of hell or dismal threats of being reincarnated in the form of dung beetles to account for why we should desire the good life, justice, and the good, but can find justification for these things in immanence; in life itself…  No matter what justice, the good life, and the good turn out to be.  Philosophically we don’t begin with the premise that we know what these things are– we treat them as empty master-signifiers or S1’s to be determined through thought –but instead work towards a comprehension of these things.  Nor does existence need to be redeemed by an eschatology or some sort of transcendent supplement.  Meaning, instead, is there in the immanence of life.

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Somehow it seems like the professionalization of philosophy, which began in the 19th century, was a disaster.  I suppose there’s something suicidal in saying such a thing.  If there weren’t such a thing as professional philosophy, then I wouldn’t have a job.  I’ll grant that.  However, when I look at what professionalization has wrought, I wonder if it hasn’t been catastrophic.  Through professionalization, the questions of philosophy have become rarified and abstract, generating all sorts of fascinating philosophical riddles and puzzles, yet one is left– especially the outsider –with the general question “why does it matter?”  At the end of the day, what difference does any of this make?  How pathetic is it that we endlessly pour over Chinese Rooms and what Mary learned and brains in a vat?  This is what we’ve been reduced to?  Grue?  I can, of course, tell a story about why this or that matters, but the point is that it takes a lot of work to dig that “mattering”, that difference, out.  What seems to be missing is an overall telos or aim of philosophical inquiry.  In this regard, I suppose that I’m a sort of Peircian pragmatist.  I believe that conceptual differences and concepts more generally should make some sort of difference to our practice, to how we live, how we feel, how we inquire, or how we relate to one another.  If they don’t, then they’re not of much interest and should probably be abandoned.  What is it we’re doing when we do philosophy, I wonder, but most importantly, why are we doing it and is it worth doing at all?  What philosophy seems to lack is a global vision that renders its activity comprehensible and provides a compass for directing inquiry.

It’s naive and romantic, but the original signification of philosophy as “love or friendship with wisdom” seems to be precisely what is lost.  But why should I care about wisdom?  Why should I desire this special sort of knowledge?  Why should anyone desire wisdom?  I think anyone should desire wisdom because wisdom is a knowledge of how to live well; it is knowledge of the good life; and it is knowledge of how to make conducive to achieving that aim.  Everyone is laughing at me now.  Who takes wisdom seriously anymore?  Who believes there is a picture of the good life?  I don’t know if I do.  I get tied up in knots with these questions.  However, with such a question philosophy opens up like a flower and the other questions– the ontological, the ethical, the epistemological, and all the rest –bloom of their own accord.  They open up out of the question of the good life and the desire to know what the good life might be.  If ontology– the question of the nature of being –and metaphysics are of any value at all, then this is because we must know something of the true nature of being or reality to make wise decisions.  We don’t want to be Don Quixote and spend our lives as Don Quixote, tilting at windmills because doing so will lead to both disastrous consequences and our lives will be in vain.  It matters whether or not I have a soul or whether God exists or whether I am nothing but a physical being.  I will live my life in entirely different ways, depending on my answers to these questions.  My practice will be entirely different.  It matters whether being is a process or composed of things or of forms.  All of these answers will influence my practice and my life differently.

If I give a damn about questions of knowledge, of what it means to know, then this is because action based on opinion can be mistaken, leading to tragic consequences.  I have the opinion that vaccination is dangerous and causes autism.  I thereby don’t vaccinate our daughter.  She gets sick and dies or becomes an incubator for new strains of diseases that had previously been put to bed.  The concept of faith– or conviction in the absence of demonstration –and you get the bloodshed of the Protestant Reformation because everyone is convinced they know divine will, yet no one can demonstrate it to the others.  The only act of love is to murder those who refuse to see the “truth”.  But as Deleuze argues, what is most interesting in Philosophy’s eternal war against doxa or opinion is not simple errors of truth, simple mistakes– and I’m among those that believe we can’t dispense with the correspondence theory of truth –but rather, the real enemy of philosophy are those illusions that haunt thought:  superstition, the lures of simulacra, alienation, stupidity, and, above all, ideology.  If philosophy is to have any value, it is above all in freeing us, in curing us, of these illusions internal to thought that again and again lead us to self-destructive and self-defeating action in our pursuit of the good life, whatever the good life might turn out to be.

And then there is the queen of philosophy– which has become the saddest of the philosophical branches in the contemporary era –ethics.  Ethics, if it is anything at all, is that branch of philosophy that provides a picture of the good life.  It is that branch of philosophy for the sake of which all of these other questions are asked and all these critiques are undertaken.  It is hard not to have contempt and a withering regard for what the discipline of ethics has become today, with its banal questions of whether or not euthanasia is moral, where we should stand on abortion, whether or not it is justified to divert a train heading to kill five people onto a track where it would kill one person, or its meditations on trembling and responsibility towards the infinite other.  What a sad, disgusting discipline it has become with its endless talk of norms and its debates between deontologists and utilitarians.  There is something indecent and profoundly ugly about all of these questions and meditations; something that indicates a deep cultural rot, and an inability to ask what is most important:  what would a life of flourishing be and what must be included in such a life?  One wonders what twisted mind thinks it’s a pressing ethical issue to determine how to persuade the psychopath and the serial killer or the capitalist that lays waste to the planet and institutes profoundly cruel factory farming?  No, we can’t even imagine the question of the good life anymore, yet everywhere such a question haunts us in our political critique and engagement as we everywhere see horror, cruelty, and injustice in the world around us.  Yet perhaps all that is required is a little dialectical negation, a little dialectical inversion, where we transform what we denounce into what we affirm and then use that which we affirm as a target of the world we’d like to create.  Yet somehow it seems as if philosophy has lost this capacity for such inversions and instead we’re left with fragments of thoughts that could be.

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