The need for philosophy


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I know I said I was taking a hiatus, but if you haven’t noticed, a few posts have been creeping up on the blog. I guess I’ve been looking for an outlet lately, and blogging provides an easy one. So while my clothes are in the wash, and I take a break from grading, I might as well post what’s on my mind.

I haven’t given much thought to the role of philosophy on this blog. I think my most extensive treatment was in this post, where I consider the paradox of “diseases of civilization” or here, where I reblog a cartoon about questions. But last week’s video from Oly at Philosophy Tube gave me pause.

Here’s the video:

I agree with Oly. If one wants to define philosophy as a critical enterprise, composed of rigorous thought, engaged discourse, and reasonable (generally logical) standards of judgement, philosophy has relevence. So does the philosophy of Seneca, Epicurus, and others that challenges assumptions and habits to live a happier, more meaningful life.

The only “philosophies” that may require skepticism are the “new age” assertions that often creep into philosophy sections at bookstores and the glib retorts that people may palaver while sipping a beer or answering a question on television.

I say these deserve skepticism because they generally do not police themselves. As Kant said, “I have set the bounds for reason to make room for faith.” Just so: we should see where reason ends and where faith begins. Faith, too, can be meaningful, but it is different from most “philosophy,” even the Eastern type, which has standards, self-criticism, and limitations.

I have little to add to Oly’s own thoughts–and little time to add anything–but I think two things are particularly important regarding even the most mundane and rudimentary philosophical thinking.

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“Ain’t no reason things are this way”

I remember I heard the song “Ain’t No Reason Things Are this Way” in the documentary I Am. The documentary discusses how our negative view of human nature–that it is selfish, competitive, and violent–is too simplistic. Scientifically, argues the documentary, we have plenty of empathetic potential. For example, “mirror neurons” in our brain mimic the mental states of other people when we watch them, filling our own psyche with their feelings. That’s why we often tense up or clutch a limb when we see a video of someone else getting hurt.

With my students, we went over an article on Wednesday about Marxist critique. “I’m not a communist,” I joked with them. But, I stressed, the helpful thing with Marxist critique–and most critique in general–is that it challenges things that seem “normal.” Marxism challenges the view that consumption is good, for example. Critique forces us to question the “normative hubris” that habits bring: that our way of doing something must be the only way. Or maybe it’s the best way. Or maybe the least bad.

But that’s not always true. As Dennen’s song points out, “There Ain’t No Reason Things Are this Way” sometimes. Sometimes the force of habit and tradition keep us going–even when those habits and traditions lose validity or meaning, like a stalled car still rolling forward.

I’m not saying we should all study critical theory, like Marxism and feminism, but I think that–as Martin Heidegger often pointed out–asking questions can often be the hardest part of thinking. Sometimes the problem loses itself in the folds of the situation, so we don’t even see the problem. It just feels “normal.” That, argues Heidegger, is one role of philosophy: keeping our ideas from calcifying into unquestioned assumptions.

So I often listen to Dennen’s song, and consider how it comforts me in a mournful way. Perhaps it’s the mutual feelings. Perhaps it’s the hope of “love” setting us free. Perhaps its the slow arpeggios and strums carrying his voice. What ever the reason, I wanted to share it:

“There is misfortune in not loving”

I ran into this Camus quote today:

There is merely bad luck in not being loved; there is misfortune in not loving. All of us, today, are dying of this misfortune. For violence and hatred dry up the heart itself; the long fight for justice exhausts the love that nevertheless gave birth to it.

It’s from his essay Return to Tipasa” (1954). I’ve seen it countless times, but for some reason today, it hit hard. Many don’t want to acknowledge that “good” fights often veer “wrong” or that a particular perspective, despite its nobility or truth, obscures another, but Camus did. He regularly critiqued both sides in a struggle, even the “good” side, fighting for “clarity,” which he considered central to his moral code. For Camus, one must be honest with their intentions and not mask them behind noble words. Often, every option has flaws.

I suppose it resonates with my jaded perspective on the activism I see happening sometimes. Often, the fight for fairness or equality, which I fully support, becomes muddied by the hatred that the struggle itself engenders. People start hating the things they fight. This is good when the hatred is justified and tempered by compassion, but when that hatred starts to turn the fight into a struggle of revenge, it is no longer a struggle for justice or for a better world. Simply: it is a struggle for revenge.

Some justifiably feel the need for revenge. I can’t speak for them or pretend that I understand that need, nor can I take a higher moral ground. My situation is not their situation. But when a struggle for justice or fairness or equality becomes a struggle for revenge, it is no longer the same thing it was when it started. We must be honest.


Hey all, in the coming weeks I don’t think I’ll have time to post much as I gear up for PhD applications, thesis writing, and the day-to-day challenges of grading, teaching, and my own classes. Now and then, I may post something or reblog something, but I want to make sure I’m officially focused on academics until break in winter. I hope that you have a beautiful autumn/fall, and in the meantime, here are two links.

First, here’s a link to one of my favorite essays, which I read every fall: Thoreau’s “Autumnal Tints,” one of the last essays he wrote. And while your at it, you might as well check out his piece “On Walking,” which inspired me to read everything I could by him.

Second, here’s a link to an op-ed I wrote about climate change for my school’s paper. And if you’re a Daily Show fan, this clip dovetails nicely from this.

Now, I am off to research Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and grade papers as I prep for student conferences this week. I just hope Thomas Carlyle was right about the redemptive quality of work.

Rain Check



So, I’ve been grading a lot this weekend and a bit last weekend, so I haven’t been able to post. I apologize. Since I am a bit brain drained at the moment, I don’t trust my writing. But I do trust my usual millennial acumen to share something from the internet,an interesting PBS documentary about the Buddha:


Morning Advice


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For those of us struggling to get up this Monday, Marcus Aurelius has some good advice:

In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.- It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour?

–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 5, paragraph 1 [Trans. from Internet Classics Archive]

Kant and the “friend zone”


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Hey all. Since my last post touched on Kant’s ethics, I figured I’d extend it with another video using Kant to deconstruct the friend zone, from the articulate, witty, and charming Olly at Philosophy Tube. If you enjoy this, check out some of his other videos or follow him on Twitter.

I hope you’re having a nice week.

Would Kant do the Ice Bucket Challenge?


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Most of you are probably familiar with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Celebrities have taken part, including Bill Gates, and it’s been filling social media.

But for those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s pretty simple: when challenged, you either dump ice water on your head or donate $100 or ALS research and treatment. Many donate the money regardless, but if you do dump the ice water, you can challenge three more people, giving them 24 hours to comply. In effect, it goes like this:

The goal, besides raising money, is to spread awareness. The viral quality of the campaign has proven particularly effective, raising over $100 million dollars, according to this article from Aug. 15, and bringing ALS to the forefront of the public sphere. It is a brilliant viral campaign, seeming to make a positive difference.

But for some the project feels too public, too self-broadcasting. It reeks of shallow millennial-led narcissism and low-effort activism, where over-rich Americans throw cold water on themselves, film it, send it to the world, and think it constitutes “help.”

Well, despite some reservations, I think it does.

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I apologize for not posting lately. I’ve been moving into school and prepping for the semester. I have a post in mind that I hope to write soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to post a video that I come to now and then: Alain de Botton’s take on Epicurus.

Epicurus and the “Epicurean” way of life has taken an odd turn through the ages, earning the connotation that it’s easy, hedonistic, and pleasure-focused. We have, for example, which is all about food. It often contrasts Stoicism’s emphasis on endurance and austerity with a fat, easy life of comfort and self-gratification.

Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]

Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]

But, as you can probably expect, the original Epicurus and his followers were not nearly so “epicurean” and had much in common with their rival school, the Stoics, in ways of general beliefs and lifestyles. Both wanted the good life and both emphasized that one’s behavior required a certain logic and virtue in order to find it. Moreover, both emphasized simplicity.

For Epicurus and his philosophy, one of the key means to this happiness was simplicity. Simply your life, he might say, and you have less to fret over. A bit like Thoreau’s philosophy with Walden: strip life to its must fundamental points, and you can live it with fewer distractions, getting more out of it. Or as he famously put it:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

"Live deliberately" in this replica of Thoreau's cabin

“Live deliberately” in this replica of Thoreau’s cabin [Image from Wikipedia]

Epicurus also wanted to “reduce [life] to its lowest terms,” emphasizing fundamentals like friendship, freedom, meaningful tasks, and time to reflect. He ate simply, preferring water, bread, and vegetables over wine and and banquets. He also worked hard. But he kept those fundamental “pleasures,” like friendship, nearby.

Epicurus and Thoreau are not alone in this perspective. It’s common to many religions and many self-help guides–from the mundane to the truly helpful. The Buddha, for example, has a famous story in which a farmer interrupts his teaching to ask if they have seen his cows. The farmer is fretting and saying he might kill himself if he can’t find them. The Buddha cannot help. When the man walks away, the Buddha tells his followers how lucky they are that they do not have to worry over such things. For him, the greatest possession is freedom.

Currently moved into my townhouse, I have a very simple arrangement–few decorations, the basics in kitchen, clothes, and hygiene. I’m sure I’ll acquire more, especially as my fellow suite-mates move in, but for now I must content myself with these and seek out other, deeper pleasures. We shall see how that goes. But for now, I’ll remember Epicurus:

Internet Dialects and Online “Space”


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I know I’ve been posting a lot lately about the Internet and digital literacy, but this time, it’s based off on one of the more recent Idea Channel videos:

To summarize, many online “speech communities” from specific groups and interfaces have their own linguistic patterns, expressions, and focuses. In the language of the video, they have “dialects,” just as different geographic regions have different wording, slang, and linguistic personalities.

For example, as the video shows, the /b/ forum on 4Chan feels and sounds coarse, chaotic, and unfriendly. Or Tumblr tends to use many .gifs based off of the .gif-friendly interface.

As I think of these topics, I often turn to the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and his conception of the “public sphere.” While the details often differ depending on the theorist or the argument, the public sphere is essentially a space where people from different backgrounds can meet and discuss topics in a united context. Imagine a park, bringing together a web of people, or a coffee shop, open constantly to the public.

A handy diagram to give some clarity. [Image from]

A handy diagram to give some clarity. [Image from]

For Habermas, one of the key principles of the public sphere is its “universal access.” Here, many others attack him, as access to the public sphere often requires certain things, like a reliance on shared symbols and rules, a level of education, and material access.

Thus, while the Internet may seem like a “public sphere” of sorts, it clearly isn’t because it lacks this universal access. You need a connection, something many people do not have, and the Internet lacks the order and unity that a public sphere seems to imply. Its borders and spaces have no geographic limitations. Some exist beyond the realm of legislation. Professional or educational websites coexist with amateur, joking, obscene, pornographic, criminal, and chaotic spaces. Many different languages and symbols collide, and many users don’t “discourse,” but troll or produce random content, like “YouTube poop.”

My vocabulary is deliberately spacial and organic here. Like our living spaces, the Internet is a lived-in space, changed by those who live in it. Or, to go back to language, the Internet is always in a constant dialogue with itself, as the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin might have seen it. It builds meanings, connotations, and references constantly through the shared use of its symbols and spaces.

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