Making the case for philosophy

At the Indian Philosophy Blog, Amod Lele has written a post titled “Making the case for non-Western philosophy.” Even though the title is ostensibly the subject of the post — even though the post is, on the surface, a book review about a book making the case for studying non-Western philosophy — Lele’s post really is making a case for studying philosophy at all, non-Western or Western.

As Lele puts it: “We live in an anti-philosophical and anti-intellectual age where philosophy, Western and Asian, needs defending.” As one specific example, he mentions “the awful US Republican debate where three different politicians took it upon themselves to take pot shots at philosophy.” It is worth noting that Donald Trump was not one of the candidates who took potshots at philosophy; this serves as a helpful reminder that the Republican party is riddled with anti-intellectualism.

Nor is anti-intellectualism confined to the Republican party. As a resident of Silicon Valley, I can tell you that Silicon Valley is a hotbed of anti-intellectualism. The only intellectual disciplines that are valued here in the Valley are those disciplines that will make you money; and really only those narrow areas within a discipline that will make money. Silicon Valley residents look down on the flyover states, but when I lived for a year in north central Illinois, an hour west of Chicago, I found more intellectual depth than I find here in Silicon Valley.

In his post, Lele discusses Paul Ricoeur’s concept of “the hermeneutic of faith” — which Lele defines as the willingness “to listen to the great thinkers of the past and take seriously the idea that they might be right — and contrasts that with the “hermeneutic of suspicion … which views previous thought as oppressive dead weight.”* Both the Republican party and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs may be accused of having their own versions of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” — the Republican party has left behind its intellectual past, and now appears to repudiate all serious thinking; Silicon Valley entrepreneurs view whatever predates computers as now hopelessly outdated and worthy only of amused contempt. Nor are Democrats immune from such thinking; too many Democrats worship Silicon Valley, and indeed the Democrats’ unquestioning embrace of neoliberalism and unrestrained capitalism also represents a kind of betrayal of serious thought. Identity politics, which now dominates the Democrats’ social policies, can also be deadly to serious thought: although identitarianism has been useful in deconstructing problematic thought processes, in practice identity politics can also serve as an intellectual bludgeon with which to shut down serious discourse and serious thinking.

Politically, socially, and intellectually, the United States is heading into a dead end. I don’t claim that philosophy is going to save us, or steer us out of the dead end. But I do claim that we need to let go of our anti-intellectualism, and start thinking about more than how to make money, and how to beat our political opponents. This is precisely where both Western and non-Western philosophy might be able to help.

We need look no further than the Confucian Analects, and the concept of rén which may be translated as kindness, forebearance, humaneness. For example, ren is defined as follows in the Analects (6.30): “The person of perfect virtue, wishing to be established, establishes others; wishing to be enlarged, enlarges others.”** This kind of thoughtful selflessness would do much to change both U.S. politics and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

And Confucius even had an answer for someone who wants to know how just thinking about something will affect the real world: “Ren is not far off; the person who seeks for it has already found it.”


* It is significant that the spell checker in Firefox, my Web browser, does not contain the word “hermeneutics”; though you can be assured the spell checker contains every tech buzzword.
** My rewording of Legge’s translation.

Marx bicentennial

Karl Marx’s two hundredth birthday was celebrated on May 5 — at least, it was celebrated in a few places such as Marx’s home town of Trier, where there is reportedly a thriving trade in Marx-themed tourist tschotchkes; and in China, still a communist country, at least from its own perspective.

In most of the United States, Marx’s birthday was studiously ignored. There were a few newspaper editorials (remember newspapers?), most of which, I suspect, assumed the gently mocking tone of the editorial in the Chicago Tribune, which wound up concluding that Marx was wrong: “Germany conducted an exhaustive 40-year experiment on the comparative value of a market-based approach and a statist one. In 1989, it was the latter that expired, along with the Soviet-aligned dictatorship that ruled in the east.”

Social media was far less restrained in its open criticism of Marx; when philosophy professor Brian Leiter posted birthday greetings to Marx on Twitter, both he and Marx were, not surprisingly, viciously attacked, and to a lesser extent, viciously defended.

For most people in the United States, the main thing to know about Karl Marx is that he has been proved wrong. Communist states murdered tens of millions of people, communism couldn’t compete with capitalism, and since 1989 when the Soviet Union imploded, communism and Karl Marx are irrelevant.

Was Karl Marx wrong? It depends on how you read him. If you accept the Soviet Union’s interpretation of Marx (which most Americans do without questioning it), an interpretation in which the Soviet Union had the only true interpretation of Karl Marx, then you have a pretty strong argument that Marx was in fact wrong.

As for me, I was introduced to Marx through the Frankfurt School, which offered a substantially different interpretation. The Frankfurt School pointed out that Marx demonstrated the ways capitalism causes alienation, and the ways women are subjugated under capitalism. The Frankfurt School also made it clear that reading Marx seriously required intellectual freedom that only came from disaffiliating with existing communist parties. While I’m critical of the Frankfurt School, it was the Frankfurt School helped me learn how to be critical — critical of economic systems that cause harm; critical of social structures in which a few people dominate everyone else; and critical of any belief in supernatural forces that are supposed to save us.

I’ve found this last kind of criticism — the criticism of belief in supernatural forces that will supposedly save us — to be very powerful. Whenever I hear that something is going to save us, if we would just put our trust in it, I get very skeptical. A lot of Americans want us to have unquestioning belief in the motto “In God we trust”; but I’m very skeptical that some big Daddy God is going to save us from infidel Muslim terrorists, unemployment, or whatever the bogeyman of the month happens to be.

And most Americans, including all our political leaders, have an unquestioning belief in a supernatural force called “The Free Market” that will solve all our problems. I find this even less believable than the idea that a Daddy God is going to solve all our problems.

Marx’s writings have distinct limitations, and we should read him critically. Some of the best criticism of Marx may be found in Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, where Piketty points out that because Marx did not have access to big data sets, Marx simply couldn’t be very accurate.

Despite those limitations, Marx’s writings taught me how to be critical of the society in which I live. Things do not have to be the way they are now. History shows that things can change. We do not have to put up with injustice. That’s the fundamental message of Marx, one that is still as fresh today as when he was writing the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Capital, and the Theses on Feuerbach which end with the statement:

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Happy birthday, Karl.

Not thinking about being human

At the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, writes about what it’s like to be a black professor.

Back in December, 2015, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Yancy titled “Dear White America,” a thoughtful essay that asked white Americans to reflect on their position as white persons in a social system that provides structural benefits for white people. From my perspective as a former student of philosophy, this op-ed piece was primarily philosophical: it was written in the spirit of dialogue and openness, and designed to evoke serious reflection on an insistent social situation.

Rather than evoking reflection, Yancy reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education that he received “hundreds of emails, phone messages, and letters, an overwhelming number of which were filled with racist vitriol.” Yancy offers quotations from perhaps a dozen of the communications he received. Sadly I was not astonished by the level of vitriol; it was about what I expected. I was mildly astonished at how badly written these communications were, and how thoughtless — I mean “thoughtless” not in the sense of a lack of civility (though they did lack civility), but thoughtless in the sense that the writers had not actually thought about what they wrote.

Since Yancy’s essay was structured to provoke thoughtfulness about the topic of race, how is it that hundreds of people responded thoughtlessly? Part of the problem may be the American cultural tendency towards “evasion of philosophy” — the phrase used by American pragmatist philosopher Cornel West to name the American propensity of avoiding systematic thinking. Another part of the problem is American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon which includes those ostensibly well-educated Americans who value entrepreneurship and “business” over the life of the mind.

But I think the major problem here is the inability of most white Americans to think seriously about race and racism in America — to think, to think seriously. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has identified the problem of “white fragility,” but there is more to Yancy’s experience than white fragility. Yancy was attacked for asking white Americans to think, reflect, be introspective. The refusal to think can only be called intellectual fearfulness.

Another way of saying this is that white Americans are fearful of thinking seriously and deeply about what it means to be human. This fearfulness on the part of white Americans is, I suspect, amplified by the general American anti-intellectualism which is in large part a fear of thinking outside the narrow boundaries of technical achievement or outside the even narrower boundaries of American white Protestant evangelical theology. Thinking about virtual reality and artificial intelligence and other technical matters is acceptable. Thinking about, and either accepting or rejecting, the Protestant evangelical conception of God is acceptable. Thinking about what it means to be human as a white American is not acceptable, and evokes fearfulness rather than serious reflection and introspection. I find that very troubling.

Welders and philosophers

Marco Rubio is an ass. I say this both as a philosophy major, and as someone who has worked with his hands for a living.

In Tuesday’s Republican debate, Rubio stated, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” Let’s take that first pronouncement first. researched the statement, and when the compared teachers of philosophy with welders, they found that philosophers earn more than welders. So Rubio is wrong.

But let’s assume that Rubio is talking about anyone with a philosophy degree. My graduating class in college had about 50 philosophy majors. The majority of them went to to law school; an undergraduate degree in philosophy was then a well-respected pre-law degree because philosophy gave you experience in debate, critical thinking, reading lengthy and mind-numbingly boring texts, and putting up with incredible amounts of bullshit — all valuable skills for lawyers. Note that Rubio is in fact a lawyer, and probably is professionally close to more than one well-to-do philosophy major; he must know the value of philosophy training to lawyers. So it’s hard to know why he puts down philosophy majors, unless perhaps he is jealous of the superior legal skills of those with degrees in philosophy.

Now let’s look at this from the point of view of people who have actually worked with their hands for a living. Which, by the way, Rubio himself has never done. Welding is a great job, and recent jobs posted on the Jobs in Welding Web site include positions ranging from really creative jobs, e.g., welder to work on experimental and production welding — to straightforward production jobs, e.g., working as a boilermaker welder in a railroad maintenance facility. Yes, these are great jobs, but as with any job where you work with your hands, you have to worry about getting hurt, and you have to worry whether your body will physically hold up until retirement. Speaking as someone who spent five years working as a carpenter, I can tell you that these are non-trivial worries, and that because of this many manual labor jobs are far more stressful than white collar jobs. Furthermore, manual labor jobs are constantly in danger of being off-shored, out-sourced, or made obsolete by new technology (e.g., robots now perform many welding tasks; so-called manufactured homes are cheaper than stick-built homes; etc.) — and these dangers just add to the stress.

At this point, we could get into an interesting argument about whether Rubio’s economic priorities are more likely to help or hurt manual laborers, but let’s hold off for a moment. Let’s just say that I’d feel better about Rubio’s pronouncement if he knew what it was like to work with your hands, the constant worry about getting hurt, the seasonal lay-offs. Given that he is a soft-handed law school graduate who has always had cushy, white-collar jobs, his comment about philosophy majors and welders makes him come across as an ass.

I’m using “ass” in a philosophically precise sense, as a shorthand version of the more offensive word “asshole,” a word that has been precisely defined by philosopher Aaron James as someone who “is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people” (Assholes: A Theory, New York : Doubleday, 2013). While James’s book may be problematic in some areas, his definition of “asshole” is a good one. Since Marco Rubio comes across as having a great sense of entitlement, with no awareness of how other people perceive him, he fits James’s definition of an asshole, and it is in this sense that I call Rubio an ass.

So at this point, let’s look at Rubio’s second pronouncement: “We need more welders and less philosophers.” Sad to say, too many of our politicians are persons who, like Rubio, have become immunized to their sense of entitlement. As a philosophy and moral theologian, I would say that what the American political scene needs as much as anything is a healthy dose of humility and moral reflection — something that we philosophers are well-trained to supply. No wonder Rubio wants fewer philosophers: we are the ones who can point out that he’s being an ass, and tell him how to stop.

In summary, although we could use fewer people like Marco Rubio, we actually could use more of both welders and philosophers.

Xenophanes on the appearance of the divine

Xenophanes, a Greek thinker (fl. 540 BCE), is quoted by later writers as having said the following about the divine:

If cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as humans do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own — horses like horses, cattle like cattle. [Diels-Kranz fr. 15.]

Mortal [humans] suppose that the gods are born as they themselves are, and that they wear human clothing and have human voice and body. [Diels-Kranz fr. 14.]

— trans. Arthur Fairbanks [and altered slightly by me], The First Philosophers of Greece: An Edition and Translation… (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trubner Co., 1898), p. 67.

Star Island RE handouts

Below are the handouts from the workshop on teaching I led at this summer’s Star Island religious education conference. (Yes, it took me almost two months to proofread these handouts and finally post them — this gives you an indication of how very busy this year’s church start-up has been.) These handouts are aimed at more experienced Sunday school teachers, religious education committee members, and religious education professionals.

Developmental stage theory handout

Educational philosophies handout

Multiple intelligences handout

RE theologies handout

Session plan form

A possible case for teaching intelligent design

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, who declares himself an atheist, argued in a 2008 article in Philosophy and Public Affairs that intelligent design (ID) can not be dismissed as easily as young earth creationism. Yes, ID is very problematic, as Nagel knows:

“I understand the attitude that ID is just the latest manifestation of the fundamentalist threat, and that you have to stand and fight them here or you will end up having to fight for the right to teach evolution at all.” [Thomas Nagel, “Public Education and Intelligent Design,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, v. 36, no. 2, p. 203.]

However, Nagel says, both ID and scientific naturalism are grounded in worldviews that originate outside science. He then asks, Why is it OK to disallow one of these world views in public education, while allowing the other worldview? Speaking as an atheist, he says:

“I do not regard divine intervention as a possibility, even though I have no other candidates. Yet I recognize that this is because of an aspect of my overall worldview that does not rest on empirical grounds or any other kind of rational grounds. I do not think the existence of God can be disproved. So someone who can offer serious scientific reasons to doubt the adequacy of the theory of evolution, and who believes in God, in the same immediate way that I believe there is no god, can quite reasonably conclude that the hypothesis of design should be taken seriously.” [pp. 202-203]

Many political liberals will reject this notion out of hand, but Nagel makes a convincing argument that they should think more carefully about their rejection. It is worth reading the entire article, in order to follow Nagel’s careful and nuanced line of thought; the article is online here.

New blog on Indian philosophy

There’s a new blog on Indian philosophy called, not surprisingly, The Indian Philosophy Blog. Some of the posts are technical, some of the posts are academic news. But some of the posts, and associated comments, are pretty interesting.

Take, for example, a post on Penguin India’s decision to recall and destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, in response to right-wing Hindu demands. But, says blogger Andrew Ollett, “India has long traditions of argumentation,” and he concludes that:

“The politics of outrage and offence, and the struggle to ban and silence competing viewpoints, are antithetical to this long tradition of reasoned debate. They impoverish public discourse and they endanger critique and the kind of truths that depend on critique.”

The comments get even more interesting. There’s a comment from someone in India, there’s discussion of the legacy of colonialism, and more.

Interesting stuff. Definitely a blog that I will be scanning on a regular basis.