A philosophical interpretation of recent campus protests

For many of us college folk separated by thousands of miles from the east coast, the recent protests at Yale and Princeton initially seem both frivolous and ridiculous: here is a bunch of students and faculty at fancy schools getting all worked up over “trigger warnings” and Halloween costumes. First-world problems on steroids! How nice it would be to study, live, or work at such enormously privileged institutions, where these are the biggest problems! The rest of us are working hard to keep class enrollments under fifty, or to qualify for comparatively measly amounts of financial aid, or to scrape together a couple of thousand bucks to send a debate team to nationals.

Since these fancy colleges are so powerful, there issues forth an endless stream of articles trying to explain what has gone wrong with “the American mind,” and how today’s college students are “coddled” and emotionally immature. But it’s seldom recognized that what some professors may be seeing on occasion in some elite institutions doesn’t really carry over to the vast majority of students and faculty at a broad range of less-than-elite schools. Our problems, let us proudly announce, really are problems, and our students could not be accused of being “coddled” in any way. We face problems that no institution with a $24-billion endowment can begin to imagine, and our students are not about to walk into the fleet of Wall Street jobs held open for the graduates of the Ivy Leagues.

Harrumph, harrumph. Nevertheless, I think there is a deep and important philosophical conflict that is at the root of the campus protests, and it is one we all should reflect upon. The conflict emerges as a society built upon the Enlightenment becomes aware of the cost of its privilege.

In a very short summary, the Enlightenment was both good and bad. The good side is that thinkers such as Locke, Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, and Smith all evidenced a great optimism in the human capacity to know the world through empirical science and govern themselves with justice and political equality. Their vision laid the foundation for the great republican democracies of our age. The bad side is that Enlightenment culture was paid for with a lot of blood. As at least one historian has pointed out, rather than thinking of the great French Encyclopédie as the grand emblem of the Enlightenment, one might instead focus on the slave ship, cleverly designed to carry hundreds of captives without incurring so much death and suffering as to make the venture unprofitable. This ship was the Enlightenment in practice, rather than on paper, and the “enlightened” thinkers were complicit in such commercial inhumanity, whether they knew it or not.

As a result, the institutions we have as a result of the Enlightenment – great universities, in particular – are both good and bad. The good is that these institutions are shrines to the Enlightenment ideals of free inquiry, free speech, the lively exchange of ideas, the building of rational and critical faculties, and the respect for individuals as autonomous thinkers. The bad is that these institutions also reflect, in ways big and small, the tyranny of colonialist cultures and the subjugation of non-European people. One recent article on the campus protests unwittingly makes this point evident when the author writes,

These [protesters] are young people who live in safe, heated buildings with two Steinway grand pianos, an indoor basketball court, a courtyard with hammocks and picnic tables, a computer lab, a dance studio, a gym, a movie theater, a film-editing lab, billiard tables, an art gallery, and four music practice rooms. But they can’t bear this setting that millions of people would risk their lives to inhabit because one woman wrote an email that hurt their feelings?

Indeed, what’s not to love about the manor house when you’ve been called in from slaving away in the cotton fields? Of course these students themselves haven’t been slaving away; but their existence, as well as the existence of the institutions themselves, are grounded in that forced labor.

To their credit, our contemporary universities have no shortage of courses where this good/bad legacy of the Enlightenment is explored at great length along many dimensions. (In fact, these days one is more likely to find greater examination of the bad side than the good.) College students take these classes, and they are forced to reflect on the great stretches of injustice that made their institutions possible – and not just to reflect, of course, but to feel righteous indignation at the hypocrisy of these institutions as they try to paint themselves in the rosiest possible light.

Now, again, these are college students, and, smart as they are, they often have not developed the full set of dispassionate argumentative skills displayed by the great Enlightenment thinkers. They feel rage, and they find some way to express it. So they shout and petition and carry on and spit and tweet and so on. And they feel renewed fury when they are admonished by the guardians of the institution to pipe down and work through the proper channels. Sometimes the complaints raised by some of these students sound just silly – “Help me! I’m being victimized by a Halloween costume!” – and the videos of these students confronting their institutions’ leaders show shameful, grossly indecent behavior. But these sometimes inchoate complaints are growing out of a deeper frustration that there’s a whole lot of past (and present) injustice that is being trivialized. The open letter written by the Yale students features a strong central point: “We are not asking to be coddled. The real coddling is telling the privileged majority on campus that they do not have to engage with the brutal pasts that are a part of the costumes they seek to wear.”

In this way, the conflict being expressed in what seems initially to be frivolous and ridiculous protests in fact strikes at the root of our most cherished institutions. We Americans and Europeans indeed are privileged people; and we have come to enjoy this privilege by subjugating and enslaving others. What do we do with that legacy? Try to forget it? Note it now and again, and then move on with business as usual? Offer reparations? To whom? It’s far from clear what justice requires from us. Like Macbeth, we have hands that just won’t wash clean.

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Hypatia of Alexandria: or, a primer on platonic love

Plato, as we know, told tales of an abstract realm beyond the senses, a realm beyond the dim and dark cave we call “the world.” It was a realm of forms, first glimpsed through the discipline of mathematics, and more thoroughly known through philosophical cross-examination, or dialectic. It’s not clear just how much religion there was in Plato’s own philosophy, but that philosophy certainly was enlarged into mystical proportions by the time of Plotinus (204-270 c.e.).

Hypatia2-featuredWe can get a richer sense of this notion – that the pure intellect can grasp divinity – by exploring the life of Hypatia, a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who lived in the great city of Alexandria about a century after Plotinus. Hypatia was brilliant and utterly dedicated to the life of the intellect. She was famous as a philosopher and mathematician, and a school formed around her. She was also beautiful (it is said), and attracted many suitors; but she resisted them all in deference to the requirements of her philosophy. She became caught up in a power struggle between the city’s governor and its Christian bishop, and met a grisly death at the hands of the bishop’s supporters.


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Does philosophy belong in the humanities?

In the old model of the liberal arts, the trivium was the ground floor of the “core curriculum” for students. It consisted in logic, rhetoric, and grammar, or the basic tools for scholarly reading, understanding, and writing. One then studied the quadrivium, or the four fundamental tools for researching nature’s design: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The humanities – or rather their distinguished ancestor, philology – grew from the trivium, with the addition of history. Philosophy, though, has been at odds with the art of rhetoric since the time of Plato, and has obstinately refused any association with the humanities – except for the purposes of university administration and applying for grants. James Turner makes the separation of philosophy from philology quite clear:

As we have seen, the modern humanities are cousins related by branching descent from common ancestors.  For most of this long revolutionary history, philosophers understood their studies as the opposite of philology, rhetoric, and antiquarianism.  Philosophy was logical, deductive, precise in conclusions, dismissive of change over time. Philology was interpretive, empirical, treating in probabilities, drenched in history. For much of the past two and a half millenia, starting with Plato, philosophers snickered at philology and rhetoric when not castigating them. Hostilities have cooled in recent centuries, but basic natures did not alter.” (Turner, Philology, 381)

The more philological humanities locate themselves at the intersections of several kinds of conversations – historical, political, cultural, and moral. The best writers in these humanities see all of these conversations taking place at once, in real time, and try to be sensitive to all of them. They see their own work as contributions to the subject they are surveying, and are circumspect in what they say because of the way it will affect, amplify, and distort the subject matter at hand. Their ultimate subject matter is the evolution of a conversation.

Philosophy, on the other hand, as Turner says, has tried to follow Socrates in having just one kind of conversation, the kind that aims at truth. Unlike the philological humanists, philosophers rarely see their own conversation as influencing what they study: the truth is one way, what we say about it does not affect it, and the aim is to get what we say to line up with what is true. This is Socrates’s way. Now the minute someone points out that this in fact was not Socrates’s way – that Plato, the literary genius, pays very close attention to the way conversation unfolds, to the gentle instructions about conversational manners and eloquence in speaking, to the occasions of conversations and where they take place and who is there and who does the speaking – as soon as someone begins to account for these things, many philosophers’ eyes glaze over as they realize they are in for one of those kinds of talks, the mushy smearing of rhetorical paste over the quite precise distinctions and arguments made by Socrates and his partners. We won’t get at truth except through the patient and careful analysis of arguments, say the philosophers – and logic is thus elevated over rhetoric.

A great many papers now presented at history of philosophy conferences are efforts in what I call “analytical exegesis.” That is, texts of philosophers are read with intense concern paid to the logical possibilities of interpretation – precisely what the text does and does not say – along with a philosopher’s distinctive ability to generate possible problems and objections. The goal is to come up with an interpretation that fits the letter of the text and that is most likely to hold up against possible objections. Ideally, the scholar constructs out of the text a philosophical position that may well be true – not just as an interpretation of a text, but really, honest to goodness true.

There are several virtues to analytical exegesis: it forces a very meticulous treatment of the text, and offers a glimpse of the logical space of possibilities that surrounds the text. More prosaically, it also allows for the sort of inquiry that lends itself to early publications for graduate students and junior faculty, since it requires mastery of only a small range of text and a cluster of secondary articles, along with inventiveness of mind.

But analytical exegesis has its shortcomings. By refusing to join up with the philological humanities, philosophers miss out on making the connections their texts have to historical context, to other authors, as well as to other kinds of questions – historical, political, cultural, and even economic – that might be raised even about passages that may seem purely metaphysical. Moreover, because of these missed connections, the analytical exegetes address a very narrow audience – really only one another – since the highly-polished gems they turn up don’t quite fit into any of the settings that are made available by historical and philological inquiries. One ends up with, say, a beautiful theory of free will that grows out of consideration of Locke’s text; but it is more relevant to contemporary action theory than to any other discussions that took place in the late 17th century. The result therefore is likely to be of interest only to future attempts at analytic exegesis. In this way, analytical exegesis begins to resemble a very peculiar form of fan fiction, albeit one carried out with strenuous intellectual effort and utmost seriousness.

As is probably obvious, I’d like to see philosophers shift toward a more interesting blend of both analytic exegesis and broader humanistic awareness. I’d like to see philosophy make peace with philology.

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More on meaninglessness

I’m glad that my “everything is meaningless” essay generated so much discussion over at 3QD. But the discussion has made it clear to me that I could have been much more explicit in what I was trying to say.

First off, let’s agree that there are many different meanings of “meaningfulness.” I was focusing on the “meaning of life” kind of meaningfulness, which has to do with the point, the aim, the significance, or the telos of living a human life. “What makes a human life meaningful?” was the sort of question I was raising. I wasn’t concerned with the meaningfulness of words, or the significance an event or an object might have to an individual (“my first car meant a lot to me, since I bought it with money I earned all by myself”). I don’t have anything interesting to say about these other meanings of meaningfulness.

But I did have (I think) something interesting to say about human activities and lives being meaningful, and in claiming that “everything is meaningless” I was trying to draw attention to the fact that our ordinary, familiar ways of determining whether processes or endeavors are meaningful should lead us to the conclusion that nothing we do is ever meaningful. I’ll try here to make the argument more explicit.

Let’s begin with familiar cases of meaningful and meaningless activities. Here are some prima facie meaningful ones: (a) I write an essay to be published on 3QD; (b) I mow the lawn; (c) I plan a very special evening for my wife and myself on our anniversary. And here are some prima facie meaningless ones: (d) I write an essay to print on paper and then burn it; (e) I mow the lawn just before the workers come to cut it up and roll it into sod; (f) I plan the special evening even though, as it happens, we’ll both be out of town on separate trips.

Now what makes (a)-(c) meaningful? I think it’s obvious that the activities are easily identified as parts of larger processes that most of us typically take to be meaningful, like sharing ideas on the web, keeping up a nice appearance, and demonstrating love toward one’s spouse. If we are likely to see any of these bigger processes as important or meaningful, then we will see the smaller components as meaningful too.

That “being part of a larger meaningful process” is what makes (a)-(c) meaningful can be seen in what we have to do in order to try to see (d)-(f) as meaningful. Printing out an essay and burning it might be meaningful if in that essay I am describing all of my past sins and regrets, and burning the essay somehow is meant to free me from them. Mowing the lawn before the sod workers come – well, that’s a harder one, but maybe I’m collecting lawn clippings for mulch, or maybe I’m thinking that shorter grass will make their job easier. And planning for an event that won’t happen – well, maybe I’m planning to share those plans with my wife in order to demonstrate to her how much I regret our not being together on our anniversary. Maybe I’m planning to show the plans to her, so that we can share the event in our imaginations, if (alas!) not in real life.

In these cases, I’m folding the seemingly meaningless events into bigger things that we are likely to see as meaningful. So, again, if we are likely to see any of these bigger processes as important or meaningful, then we will see the smaller components as meaningful too.

Now I am going to suppose that this feature of part/whole meaningfulness applies at every scale. If we go on to ask about the larger schemes and endeavors – sharing ideas with others, keeping up appearances, demonstrating love toward one’s spouse – and ask whether they are meaningful, there should be some even larger meaningful framework that bestows meanings upon them. They could be, respectively, maintaining an intellectual community, being a good neighbor, and maintaining a strong and loving relationship. And if, again, we ask about the meaningfulness of these things, there should be an even bigger framework that makes them meaningful, and so on, and so on.

There have been times in history when people believed in absolute, outermost frames of meaningfulness, frameworks that are intrinsically meaningful and bestow meaning upon all parts. Like religion, for example: religious people believe in some divine truth that gives aim, point, purpose, and meaning to all that exists. Or like a Hegelian belief in progress and human potential, or like Aristotle’s view of the natural world, and everything in it, as governed by final causes. All of these worldviews have “buck-stopping” frameworks of meaning, or courts of highest appeal. If you have such a system of beliefs, then I congratulate you and have no further criticisms to raise, at least in regard to your account of meaningfulness in life.

But many of us to not have such worldviews, and instead we believe in a pointless, purposeless universe. This is the world delivered to us through Hume, Darwin, thermodynamics, Nietzsche, and contemporary cosmology. The upshot of such a universe is that there is no buck-stopping framework of meaning. Indeed, at some point in our process of linking what seem to be meaningful events and endeavors to broader, bigger meaningful endeavors, we end up shrugging. Take, for example, mowing the lawn:

Why is that meaningful?

  • Because it helps to maintain outward appearances.

Why is that meaningful?

  • Because it is part of being a good neighbor.

What is that meaningful?

  • Because we are social creatures, and we need to be mindful of others.

Why is that meaningful?

  • Because, uh, well, it makes us happy to be in pleasant communities.

Why is that meaningful?

  • I guess I’d rather be happy than not happy.

Why is that meaningful?

  • Alright! Alright! Enough already! Can’t I just prefer to be happy?

“Yes, of course!” I would say to this. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be happy, and doing the sorts of things that generally will lead toward one’s happiness. But that’s different from saying that those things are meaningful. If I am right about the “smaller things are meaningful in virtue of being parts of bigger meaningful things” claim, then the things that make us happy are not meaningful unless they are included eventually in a buck-stopping framework of meaning. If we deny that, then we deny meaningfulness all the way down.

If this seems wrong to you, then I suggest that one or the other of two things is likely going on.

First: you might have two senses of “meaningfulness” at work. You might think that, on the smaller end of things, endeavors are made meaningful1 by being parts of larger, meaningful endeavors; but on the larger end of things, endeavors are made meaningful2 just by us preferring them to alternatives, and the “being part of a bigger meaningful endeavor” feature just ceases to apply at some level of scale. There’s no law against having as many senses of “meaningfulness” as you like, of course. But I do think, and ask you to consider the possibility, that in this case “meaningful2” is just an honorific, and all it really amounts to is “I like it.”

Second: you might be just assuming some bigger endeavors are meaningful without thinking about it. Few of us have the occasion to wonder why it is meaningful to save threatened species, to write better copyright laws, or to settle regional conflicts. We just get on with the business of doing it because it seems important and meaningful to us. It doesn’t seem enough to say that we do these things merely because we prefer some states of the world to others. It’s not just our preference which makes them valuable, we think. They are valuable in themselves. But rarely are we asked to give any account of this intrinsic value or meaningfulness; and good thing, too, because most of us don’t have an account to give.

Why should I care about this? Why do I want to go around and poke at people and convince them that everything is meaningless? Good question. I guess it is because I like it when people face up to the reality of their philosophical situation. In my essay I claimed that the Great Experiment of our age is to live without meaningfulness, and I think that’s true. The challenge is for us to own up to the fact that we legislate our own ends, and nothing in the universe can determine whether we legislate correctly or incorrectly. There is nothing for us to get right or wrong. All that we have to go on is our own set of preferences – what we would like to see, and what we would rather not see. And these, I think, should be up for intelligent and sensible discussion. (I may be in the minority on this — what am I saying?! Obviously I am!)

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Everything is meaningless – but that’s okay

What would it be for life to have a “meaning”? What does it mean when people say life is meaningful? I’m not sure, so let’s start with smaller, more obviously meaningful things. Better yet, let’s start with some meaningless things. When Bob sits down to polish the steel junk he’s about to haul to the scrap heap, we can say his activity is meaningless: there’s no point to it. Similarly, when my students sit down to prepare for an exam that I have decided to cancel, their work is pointless and meaningless. When Sally writes a memo about the futility of writing memos, crafting her prose to limpid perfection, with the aim of deleting her anti-memo memo before anyone reads it, we should feel some degree of concern for her mental well-being. Meaningless things have no point to them – nothing is achieved, no purpose can be fathomed, and the work we dedicate to them is entirely wasted. Meaningfulthings, let’s presume, are just the opposite.

So, how about life as a whole – your whole life, and the lives of everyone? If we believe in a Grand Scheme of Things, some cosmic contest with an unambiguous finish line, then we might then see lives as meaningful. The history of philosophy is crammed full of such Grand Schemes, but we might call upon Leibniz to present one of the greatest ones. This world, said Leibniz, is the best of all possible worlds, the very best world a just and omniscient being could call into existence, and it is made the best by all of the things people do, when taken as a whole. All finite things strive toward greater and greater perfections of being, and the world over time turns into something that is worthy of divine selection. If we embrace the Leibnizian scheme, we feel the pressure of bringing all our actions and thoughts to the highest reaches of moral and metaphysical perfection. Everything is meaningful, because everything contributes to the end God set for creation.

This is one thrillingly grand notion of cosmic meaningfulness – but hardly anyone now believes it. Most of us accept that the universe has not come about for the purpose of achieving anything.

Read more….

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On lecturing

I am happy to see this essay in the NYT by Molly Worthen recalling us to the value of lectures. In circles of higher ed, “student-centered learning” and “engaged teaching” have been endlessly recommended, emphasized, extolled, and quite nearly made mandatory across the curriculum – and very often to very good effect, as it’s not at all crazy to believe that students will learn deeper lessons by engaging actively with ideas and methods. But as educators have joined in the celebration of that sort of teaching, old-style lecturing has been made out to be something akin to medieval torture. Worthen is right to remind us that a lecture – when done rightly – can be hugely effective in teaching.

The qualification is crucial: when done rightly. We all have been lucky enough, I hope, to have heard some really great lectures. They have beginnings, middles, and ends. They follow a plotline that has unexpected twists, funny bits, and occasions for wonder and reflection. The best of them even have climactic finishes. The lecturer isn’t afraid to get theatrical, to pace and wave arms, and to call out to the audience for response. Worthen approvingly quotes Andrew Delbanco: a good lecturer is “someone who conveys that there’s something at stake in what you’re talking about.” Exactly right. A great lecture leaves you wondering how anyone can waste their time thinking about anything else.

Unfortunately, we all have been subjected also to a great many half-baked and even awful lectures. When a professor has a large group of students showing up to take notes on whatever the professor has to say, the temptation is very real to regard oneself as a gifted lecturer, no matter how little one has to offer. I do worry that Worthen’s essay, though right on target in every way, will have the effect of encouraging lousy lecturers to keep at what they’re doing.

Academics tend toward narcissism, and the hardest classroom lesson for us to learn is that it is not about us. A lecture is not an opportunity to show off one’s great learning or cleverness. A lecture is about its content (ideas, events, texts, theories) and about exactly how that content connects with the audience. Sometimes that content connection is best made vivid through “student-centered learning,” and sometimes it is best made vivid through a lecture. But the lecturing needs to be seen in this way as the best method for delivery, and not as a vehicle for celebrating the lecturer.

That’s what I can gather from observation, anyway. I myself am not a great lecturer – on a good day, with a lot of luck, I can attain a “B+” kind of level. But I’m near enough to the task to see what it takes to be a good or great lecturer, and I can see that it takes a lot of devoted attention, a lot of practice, and a rare combination of personal qualities. Lecturing should not be seen as a default, but as something you need to train for and work at like any other valuable skill.

So I hope – but, sadly, do not expect – that Worthen’s essay causes at least some lecturers to engage in some critical self-reflection, and determine whether they really are good at it, or if they’ve merely duped themselves into thinking so.

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Witches and inoculations

Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680) may have been the first popularizer of modern science. Educated at Oxford, and one of the earliest fellows of the Royal Society, Glanvill published works that railed against rigid dogmatism and promoted open-minded scientific inquiry. He believed that the patient application of reason and experience, expressed in clear and unambiguous prose, would lift his troubled society above religious squabbles and into an enlightened age.

3231284 (1)He also believed in witches. In his Saducismus Triumphatus, or A Blow at Modern Sadducism in Some Philosophical Considerations About Witchcraft (1668), Glanvill argued that some of his more radical contemporaries were wrong to believe they could casually brush aside belief in powerful, invisible forces. Deny evil spirits, and before you know it you will be denying the existence of an ethereal soul and its afterlife – landing in Sadducism, which provides insufficient incentive for upright living.

Glanvill begins his treatise by noting that there have been thousands upon thousands of eyewitness accounts of witchcraft, many of them containing stories so thoroughly bizarre that they could not possibly be made up. Moreover, he continues, microscopes are showing us that the world is jam-packed with life, in the smallest parts of air and sea, and no one is in any position to make claims about what sorts of living forms can or cannot exist. If, as Glanvill and his Cambridge Platonist friends believed, the human soul is composed of a very light and ethereal form of matter, then there surely might be forms of spiritual life inhabiting the wide spaces our world that answer to our descriptions of demons, devils, and witches. It would be unscientific to say otherwise. Moreover, as we learn more about the surprising nature of the mechanical and chemical world, we shall begin to see that the seemingly magical powers of witches turn out to be perfectly natural.

Glanvill offered his own tentative account of the commerce between witches and their familiars. A familiar, you may recall, is an animal (like a black cat) that obeys the witch’s commands and can even serve as a surrogate pair of eyes and ears. It was further believed that the familiars themselves housed demonic spirits which exercised powers back upon the witches, in a kind of witchy symbiosis. The familiars “synced” with their respective witches by attaching their mouths to some part of the witch and sucking, leaving behind a telltale “witch’s mark.” Glanvill’s hypothesis was that

the Familiar doth not only suck the witch, but in the action infuseth some poysonous ferment into her, which gives her imagination and spirits a magical tincture, whereby they become mischievously influential…. Now that the imagination hath a mighty power in operation is seen in the just now mention’d signatures and diseases it causeth; and that the fancy is modified by the qualities of the blood and spirits, is too evident to need proof. Which things supposed, ‘tis plain to conceive, that the evil spirit having breath’d some vile vapour into the body of the witch, it may taint her blood and spirits with a noxious quality….

So it is fundamentally a biochemical infusion of evilness, a demonic analogue to STDs. Glanvill’s hypothesis is more or less in keeping with the emerging accounts of infectious diseases, just applied a bit further afield than we might expect.

This observation makes it less surprising that Glanvill had quite an influence upon Cotton Mather, who used his work to defend the Salem witchcraft trials, and was at the same time an early proponent of using inoculations to help prevent the spread of smallpox. That’s the way a science develops: a myopic inching forward, making use of what seems to work coupled together with whatever wacky theory we happen to have on hand. Unfortunately, in this case and others, this theoretical jury rigging can incur real human costs, as the ghastly hangings at Salem testify.

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