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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog


With the recent presidential election being spun as a triumph of faith over reason—and with Garry Wills (surprise, surprise) going as far as to say America has abandoned the Enlightenment—it's as good a time as any to round up recent articles on philosophy.

  • We're all philosophers now. Or at least we think we are. Contrary to Descartes, that doesn't make it so. "Philosophy, the dustiest of subjects, formerly the preserve of a few, has gone public," says Steve Carroll in the Melbourne Age. "Philosophers are not just writing books for themselves any more or the select circle in which they move, but for 'the people'—out there. And people are reading them, or, at least, they are buying them." Although many of these books are merely "the worst kind of arranged marriage between publishing and opportunistic editors … basically cultural studies with bits of philosophy thrown in" (including The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am), others aren't bad, Carroll says. He cautiously lauds the example of Alain De Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life and Status Anxiety, for helping to bring philosophy into the mainstream. "To many, the populariser is by definition superficial—a pretender," Carroll says. "But it might also be argued that popularisers such as de Botton belong to a long tradition of writers who felt bound to break free of academia and the intelligentsia in order to take their ideas to the people."
    To readers, Carroll says this: "There is also something of the self-congratulatory in a lot of these books; they make people feel good about themselves for having snacked on edible summaries of the great minds—a bit like congratulating yourself on being able to translate lines of a foreign language on a billboard," even though this is a long way from being able to speak French. Still, Carroll concludes, some quality reading awaits among the popular introductions to philosophy: "Like most things literary, what works and what doesn't work often comes down to the quality of the writing and to, as Henry James put it, just how good the mind of the writer is." Article
    Related: Four philosophy books for the non-philosopher, from the Christian Science Monitor
  • "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers," said Thoreau (quoted in the introduction to B&C's interview with public intellectual Tom Morris). If that's true today, part of the problem may be that philosophy professors tend to treat their subject only as a subject, detached from themselves rather than integrated into their reflections on their lives. In philosophy today, "hardly a trace of autobiographical detail surfaces," writes philosopher and critic Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "We know what many philosophers believe, and why they claim to believe it, but not who it is that believes." Romano praises two recent exceptions to this rule—two collections of philosophical memoirs, The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy and Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy. "Somehow the editors convinced contributors not that their lives matter … but that they matter enough to be recalled, reflected upon, talked about," Romano says. "Yes, there's the inevitable egotism, self-puffery, credentialism, and—dare one say it?—ignorance of self in these reflections. Far more important, there's news—and drama, and tears, and love, and more wisdom than appears in putatively more important work to which a few of these worthies owe tenure and career." Article
  • You will be hearing more—and not just from Wills—that only belief, not reason, matters now in America. In September, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an excerpt of Michael Lynch's forthcoming True to Life: Why Truth Matters, from MIT Press. Most of the published portion concerns what the Bush Administration said and says about Iraq, but Lynch takes aim at some broader principles. As a country, "we are rather cynical about the value of truth," he says. Stanley Fish and Bill Bennett are both to blame. "Under the banner of postmodernism, cynicism about truth and related notions like objectivity and knowledge has become the semiofficial philosophical stance of many academic disciplines. Roughly speaking, the attitude is that objective truth is an illusion and what we call truth is just another name for power," Lynch writes. Meanwhile, moralists decry relativism and hope to reawaken America to the truth "that we are right, and everyone else is wrong," when in fact, "truth means that you have to be open to the possibility that your own beliefs are mistaken." Both of these points are familiar but probably necessary to reiterate, including Lynch's (albeit quasi-empiricist) conclusion that "we distinguish truth from falsity because we need a way of distinguishing right answers from wrong ones." As Lynch notes, "The most terrifying aspect of Orwell's Ministry of Truth isn't its ability to get people to keep people from speaking their minds, or even to believe lies; it is its success at getting them to give up on the idea of truth altogether." Article
    Related:The Truth Wars and Reason and the Left from Butterflies and Wheels
  • "The future of philosophy has been a concern for philosophy ever since its inception," wrote Claire Elise Katz in the Winter 2004 issue of CrossCurrents. And it still is. After seeing a Reader's Digest joke that majoring in philosophy teaches you to ask the questions, 'What is existence?' 'What is the essence of things?', and, 'Do you want fries with that?', Katz says "it is difficult to imagine presently that an educational theory that promotes philosophy as part of the curriculum would be taken seriously, much less a political philosophy whose primary aim is the flourishing of philosophy and philosophers." But to make it happen Katz says, philosophy must return to Socrates' mandate—"Know thyself"—or, better yet, to Plato's modest elaboration on it: "Know thyself, mortal." "This expansion of the phrase … appears to command one to know one's boundaries and limitations; one ought to know who one is, and more importantly, who one is not." The command extends to thinking critically about texts, including Hebrew ones, as Katz explains. After a reflection on the intersection between philosophy and religion, Katz concludes, "I often vacillate in my belief that philosophy is elitist. In one sense, it is elitist; not everyone can do it nor can everyone do it well." And yet, "I do believe that it is a 'good thing' for everyone to be exposed to it." And so Katz concludes, "I suggest that the future of philosophy means a return to one of its original objectives: to know thyself. I propose that philosophy's future be thought in terms of negotiating the tension between its appeal to the elite (and therefore its apparent exclusivity) and its usefulness to the ordinary citizen. We would create the habits of thinking and reflecting that would become an integral part of every person's life."
  • How can this happen? You could start with Calvin Seerveld's guidelines on how to teach a Christian course on introduction to philosophy, from the archives of Dordt College's publication Pro Rege, posted earlier this year by philosophy professor Gideon Strauss. Seerveld explains how he set up his intro course at Trinity Christian College in 1959:
Philosophy 101 was conceived to give a Christian philosophical orientation … to stretch [students'] vision for serving Jesus Christ in any and all of their impending studies—school-teaching, law, laboratory science, nursing, artistry, medicine, or home-making. After facing them with Bertrand Russell's tract Why I am not a Christian, we examined why thinking, even scientific thinking, cannot be neutral with respect to a human being's fundamental stance (pou sto) on where the buck ultimately stops, what everything means, and what kind of world we inhabit. Near the end of this Philosophy 101 first-year first-semester course (3 hours) we held "modal" seminars on how different specialized studies in mathematics, biology, psychology, sociology, economics, political science, theology or educational theory were shaped by different philosophies. Profs from these various fields joined in the modal seminars with their prospective majors in trying to figure out questions like these: Why are there Bayesian and non-Bayesian statistical theories? What difference does Pavlov's psychology make next to Freud's for treating neuroses? Is a Capitalistic macro-economics theory more normative than a Socialist economics? How significant is the difference between John Dewey's theory of schooling and a Thomist one? The seminar was a lot of fun because we were discovering things we didn't quite know the answers for, and knew it was important for being a follower of Jesus Christ in the world around us." Link


Bush, Marx and reality (see 7th paragraph), from Slate
My reflections on the examined life at my personal notebook blog
Philosophy weblogs worth reading; more here (2nd paragraph) and here
From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Do philosophers respect the history of their field?
American vs. British philosophy
Boxing and philosophy
Beyond poststructuralism in cultural studies (more)


From the New York Times :

QUEMOY, Taiwan — Avant-garde art rarely comes as close to a real front line as it does in a new exhibition here, surrounded by ruined bunkers of an abandoned outpost of the cold war. Although Quemoy is under the control of Taiwan, 150 miles away, it lies roughly a mile off the coast of China, which claims the island, like Taiwan, as its own. The bunkers and minefields are the legacy of decades of confrontation between the mainland Communists and the Nationalists who fled to Taiwan. Since the 1980's, China and Taiwan have held an uneasy truce. Shelling is no longer a part of daily life for people here, and most of the soldiers are gone. But the current standoff does not satisfy Cai Guo-Qiang, a New York-based Chinese artist who has seized on these melancholy ruins for a show that ponders the legacy of war. The exhibition also seeks to build a bridge between artists from Taiwan and the mainland.

ESCALANTE, Utah — In the early 1960's, the nation's environmental movement cut its baby teeth on a fierce battle to stop construction of dams along the Colorado River. Glen Canyon dam, located in an unprotected area, was completed in 1963. … What the Sierra Club couldn't or didn't do nature has now accomplished. A severe Western drought—some say the worst in 500 years—is shrinking Lake Powell at the rate of up to a foot every four days. Since 1999, the vast reservoir has lost more than 60 percent of its water. Glen Canyon is returning. It is open and viewable in much of its former glory. At the confluence of Coyote Creek and Escalante River, where boaters once motored by to see famous rock formations, backpackers now pick their way up a shallow river channel. Fifteen-foot high cottonwoods grow amid thickets of willow, gamble oak and tamarisk. Where fish thrived, mountain lions prowl. The change may be permanent.

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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

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