On giving 1%

Recently I attended the keynote session of "Dreamforce," the annual cloud-computing conference put on by Salesforce.com. Salesforce is a multi-billion dollar corporation, and the conference, held at the Moscone center, is apparently second only to Oracle's annual shindig (or so a seemingly in-the-know cabbie told me). Regardless of who's the biggest, Dreamforce is undoubtedly impressive; they pull out all the stops. This year's musical guest was Stevie Wonder, followed by a Will.i.am-dj'ed after-party. The keynote speaker was none other than Bill Clinton, which prompted me to register (free of charge) for the event. Bill gave a rather stock speech, emphasizing the role of Salesforce.com's software in various projects of the Clinton Global Initiative. More interestingly, however, was Clinton's argument that the principles of business and charity need not be exclusive. This, as I learned from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff's introductory speech has become somewhat of a cause célèbre among the business world. Benioff has pioneered the "1/1/1" model of corporate charity. On this model, Salesforce devotes one percent of its revenue, equity, and employee hours, respectively, to charitable causes (organized by their philanthropic arm, the Salesforce Foundation). This model of Compassionate Capitalism has been adopted by other companies, namely Google. While one percent may not sound very substantial, when the scale is in the hundreds of millions and even billions, we are talking about a lot of money here. As I sat there, observing the suits fawn over Benioff's magnificence, I felt the philospher's skepticism start to take hold of me. I thought of a question for Benioff, which could be phrased two ways:
Highfalutin jargon version of my question: "Mr. Benioff, how does a company of Saleforce's stature establish rational parameters for charitable giving when formulating a business model?"
Or, in other words: "So Marc, why not two percent?"
After bringing this up at dinner later, I was all but reprimanded for my naive, ungracious inquiry. Attempting to rephrase my question, I thought it would perhaps be better formulated: "Okay, on what grounds did you decide upon one percent?" Or in still other words: "What are your reasons for choosing one percent?" I had to emphasize that I was not trying to be cynical, and that I was perfectly open to there being valid reasons for choosing 1%, as opposed to 2%, or even, say, 1.5%. I simply was curious as to why this number was chosen. Was this a decision made by the PR department? Was it made purely on the basis of evaluating what other companies gave and merely giving the bare minimum more than them? Were there aesthetic reasons involved? Does 1% just sound "snappier" than most other numbers? What would happen if they did give 2%? Would the company cease to be profitable? Would shareholders flee thus devaluing the company and making 2% an actually smaller amount? I simply wished to know the reasoning behind this decision. Seeking such reasoning, as I have found in this area and others, is rarely a popular activity.
In the ensuing weeks I began to be won over by Benioff's 1/1/1 idea. There seems to be a movement gathering around the idea that businesses ought to conduct themselves (a bit) more like charities, and that charities ought to conduct themselves (a lot) more like businesses. For those who oppose the principles of the welfare state, yet recognize the need for a safety-net, this marriage of capitalism and charity isn't unholy at all. For sure, businesses must remain committed to profit, for that is their core mission. In fact, were they to compromise this mission, they would compromise their very ability to be charitable at all. Charities on the other hand, are held back by their non-profit status. How can we really be serious about charity if we can't employ business principles for the sake of charity? Or so the reasoning goes.
Another argument that was appealing to me was the idea that one percent is a perfectly acceptable amount of annual income for an individual to give to charity. Peter Singer has argued that this minimal amount is an attractive way to get more people to open their wallets (although he typically champions giving much greater amounts). Furthermore, we can think of corporations as individuals (as the law does), or better yet, as collections of individuals jointly consenting to the 1/1/1 model by working for a company like Salesforce rather than taking their talents elsewhere, perhaps for a bigger bonus.
One final consideration that I will conclude with comes from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. For Aristotle, the virtue of magnificence is similar to generosity, but concerns only those of large means. The magnificent give the right amount to the right parties at the right time, all the while being sure to retain enough of their wealth to continue being magnificent in the future. Giving away too much, as Aristotle pointed out so long ago, ends up being counterproductive since one will quickly exhaust his resources and cease to be able to give anything at all.


Fear, Fever, Thrill

While I was an undergraduate I came to know the most peculiar individual. He existed on the periphery of my social circle; but as a figure of popular discussion, he was legendary. He was known simply as "Bri" (as in "Brian"), and the reason for his fame was actually nothing exceptional. He was an alcoholic, pure and simple. But what made Bri so peculiar was the way he was mythologized. Not only did we tell tales of Bri's spirits-soaked exploits, but we did so within a certain theoretical framework. The peculiarity of all this was that Bri himself provided the framework for his own myth. In Bri's terms, his life was defined by a cycle, and the cycle could be captured in a tripartite conceptual form: the fear, the fever, and the thrill.

The fear is best captured by the period of self-loathing and depression that usually comes on Sunday mornings. The fear is a state of being in which one is wrought with anxiety. One is unable to live in the present, as concerns about the future dominate consciousness.

The fear can last for hours, days, or even weeks. But when it does subside, it transitions into the fever. An illustrative example of the fever is happy hour. All day long one agonizes at one's desk, staring at a computer, completing mundane tasks that no one will ultimately care about. One is painfully aware of one's cosmic impotence, constantly staring out the window thinking, "Shouldn't I be hunting a pig with a spear right now?" But the hours tick away and a light appears at the end of the tunnel. Text messages begin to role in: "Pub @ 5?" One's fear begins to slip away, and a general excitement for the evening hours is awakened in the soul. The seemingly unlimited potential of the night becomes more and more real. The fever has set in.

As the fever reaches its highest pitch, one begins to transition to the thrill. The thrill tends to correlate with intoxication, but it need not. The thrill sets in as the fever subsides, along with the last traces of futural oriented life. All of the agitation caused by thoughts of what might be has slipped away at this point, as a momentary Dionysian form of being takes root. Whereas a cosmic impotence characterized the soul during the fear, and arousal characterized the fever, the thrill is felt as a sort of virility. Each moment seems drenched in significance. Momentary glimpses of infinity abound.

Of course, the thrill gradually dies down. From a burning blaze to glowing embers, the thrill exhausts its fuel as quickly as it is fed. Pure activity gives way more and more to stagnation, paralysis--i.e., the fear.

More and more, I find the fear-fever-thrill cycle applicable to my own life. While it began as a way to characterize the pattern of substance abuse, I have realized that it is suitable for describing other activities. Partaking in sport, for instance, follows a similar pattern for me. Even my reading/writing habits can be made to fit the fear-fever-thrill cycle. But generally speaking, it best describes the waxing and waning of social life: the fear of being alone, the fever of anticipated interaction, the thrill of communion. Furthermore, each stage of the cycle always already contains the seed of the next stage. The fear, characterized by existential dread, conditions the futural thought that becomes exciting during the fever. The fever is exciting precisely because of the thrill which defines its horizon. And while the thrill is the closest one comes to living in the moment, one might argue that it already contains the seeds of its own destruction. In the midst of the thrill, one knows, in the back of one's mind, that this too shall pass. The thrill will end, and the uncertainty of the morrow will return.


Rorty's words, my mouth


For those like Rorty, who wish to explain away phenomenology, a first-person point of view, is (supposedly) a point of view that produces knowledge of
intrinsic, nonrelational properties of mental events. This is partially true, but in painting their primary targets (Nagel, Searle) as concerned with a mysterious form of knowing, they may overlook the actual phenomenological tradition which posits no such thing. From a phenomenological perspective, forms of reference and forms of belief are founded on phenomenological forms of experience. So if we wish to satisfy Rorty and Dennett on their own terms, we must come up with entities like "phenomenal concepts" which are concepts possessed in virtue of "having had an experience." But even this way of painting things is a distraction. To cut right to the heart of the matter, we must argue against Rorty and Dennett by coming up with convincing ways of talking about experience that makes it logically prior to reference and belief.

But what does this involve, and why ought we to do it?

What we are really talking about here is getting the skeptics to accept an ontological category--"experiential," "phenomenal," "qualia," or something like that. We are arguing for a notion of consciousness that is not exhausted by the relations it stands in--a notion of what consciousness is intrinsically.

Intrinsic? Sounds mysterious. Everything is just language anyway. Why posit such mysterious things?

One will be able to defend the claim that there are intrinsic, non-relational features of objects only if one can claim that knowledge of those feature is not the same as knowledge of how to use the words one employs to describe those features.

So now there's a form of knowledge that is, by definition, ineffable? Sounds fishy. When will you realize that these are pseudo-problems? Dennett has already explained that it is enough to explain why there seems to be phenomenology--why it seems as if "there's a difference between thinking something seems pink to you and something really seeming pink to you.

On Nagel's view, Dennett's claim that "there are no qualities, only judgments," is a product of his "Procrustean conception of scientific objectivity." Nagel thinks that a non-Procrustean conception would make room for phenomenological data by allowing for "objective standards that combine the first- and third-person points of view.

Ok, suppose I allow you, as Rorty would, that "qualia" could be a coherent part of a category scheme?

Ah, Rorty is always a lot of talk, but at the end will tone it down and just say:
"To forswear intrinsicality is merely to say that we should replace "intrinsic feature of X" with "feature unlikely to be woven out of our descrpitions of X." And to this I reply, "Ok, but we should actually keep in our category scheme. It's worth having around."

At which point he would undoubtedly appeal to meta-philosophical reasons. Something like, "we should just talk about relieving human suffering. We should stop talking about whether anything is intrinsically worth anything. Such talk creates more problems than it solves."

I'm sure he would, and Nagel would reply by pointing out that
the sources of philosophy are pre-verbal and often pre-cultural, and one of its most difficult tasks is to express unformed but intuitively felt problems in language without losing them.

But we all know from Wittgenstein that it make sense to say that someone is or is not using a concept correctly only against the background of the possibility of agreement and identifiable disagreement in judgments employing the concept. So let's just drop those concepts that lead to undue suffering.

Accepting that claim would mean that "what there is or what is true" is limited to what we "could discover or conceive of or describe in some extension of human language." To believe that is to give up on what Nagel calls "the ambition of transcendence." Nagel thinks that the willingness of recent philosophers (such as Wittgenstein, Ryle, Sellars, Davidson, and Dennett) to renounce this ambition is a sign of spiritual degeneration. Attempts like Dennett's to change the language in order to help us actively forget troublesome old intuitions are symptoms of a childish rebellion against the philosophical impulse itself.

Nagel's ambition of transcendence is not the tough-minded commitment to intellectual honesty he thinks it, but rather a tender-minded yearing for an impossible stability and order--a kind of yearning William James deplored in the opening chapter of his Pragmatism. There is nothing like what Carnap called "the language" and Husserl called "eidetic structures." All of these "pre-verbal philosophical impulses"were supposed to play the role of canon fixer, the sort of role Conan Doyle played for [Sherlock] Holmes.

Indeed, Nagel thinks that the content of some thoughts transcend every form they can take in the human mind. And perhaps this sounds dubious. However, it is worthwhile to keep trying to use language, in a rigorous and systematic way, to account for unformed but intuitively felt problems. So the issue about who is more spiritually degenerate than whom depends on whether you think it more robust to describe yourself in the Darwinian terms that Dewey, Davidson, and Dennett use to describe themselves, or whether you think it more robust to keep you eyes on something on the other side of a gap, the sort of object that is "more" than just a center of descriptive gravity. Nagel's The View from Nowhere is one of the few books that articulates its author's moral sensibility and that recognizes that philosophical argument will sooner or later run up against the limits set by such sensibility. So, like Nagel, I recognize that Rorty, and cynics like him, can reply with equal meta-philosophical force and argue that it is worthwhile and important for human beings to renounce the ambition of transcendence to which Nagel remains faithful. I continue to find inspiration in Husserl for a phenomenologically informed theory of value that could provide, as Rorty would require of it, a very useful way of talking about human progress, value, and truth.


New Shoes

Getting new shoes really changes your outlook on life. Afterall, you spend a lot of time just looking down at your feet as you walk, surveying the path in front of you. Seeing a new shape, new colors, attached to the part of your body that you look down at all the time really mixes things up. So if you are feeling like you are in a rut, I recommend new shoes.


Travail & Travel

I've had my nose to the grindstone lately. The days all seem to blur together in a haze of research. I love "doing" philosophy, but sometimes I can't deny that it just feels like work. But that's okay. At the end of this whole process I will have 3 polished products on topics that I find interesting and important.
All of this has got me thinking about what I would be doing otherwise, or, more precisely, what I would ideally be doing (yes, more lottery fantasies). In short, the answer is: travel. I saw some show on the travel channel last night about Beirut, and let me just say, sign me up. It seems like such a beautiful and diverse place. You've got mountains, ocean, nightlife, food, half a dozen languages and cultures, a bit of mystery, a bit of danger. Its where Asia meets Europe meets Africa. The center of the world. I am DOWN!
So, if time and money were no object where would you go? Why? Anything I should know about Beirut?


Phenomenological Lottery

The last post was quite technical, I realize. So in this post I will do some similar phenomenological work, but on a more basic kind of experience, and in a more plain manner, as I am basically winging this right now.
During a recent conversation with an associate, in which I brought up a favorite topic of mine: winning the lottery, I did some quick phenomenological reflection and was able to come up with a very precise way to account for both the similarities and differences between our experiences. Some meta-reflection on what had just happened made me appreciate and understand phenomenology more, which I'll say more about later. The conversation went something like this:
I brought up how much I love fantasizing about winning the lottery. (Its true! I don't know exactly why, but I simply love thinking about what I would do with millions of dollars. Whether I would actually do any of these things is of course impossible to determine. But the fact remains that I derive great joy from simply thinking about such things, which I think is at least modest evidence for the fact that I would actually do them...anyway...). My associate told an amazing story about how a friend of his had bought him a modest amount of stock in a bio-tech company. After awhile he received a message from his friend telling him that the stock had gone up five-hundred percent. Mistakenly thinking that five-hundred percent meant 500X the initial investment instead of what it actually means--5X (still not bad at all!)--my associate spent an entire day unaware of his error. This is a fascinating set-up because it means that my associate spent about a day of his life as a millionaire. It is sufficient, but not necessary, to actually be a millionaire in order to spend a day as a millionaire. All that is is needed to spend a day as a millionaire, technically, is the assured belief that one is a millionaire. Thus, my associate spent that day literally mapping his empire, planning his various degrees of charity and largess, contemplating how to live with the inevitable joy that awaited him in his newly acquired wealth. Of course, all of this came to an abrupt end upon realizing the magnitude of his mathematical error. But nevertheless, all of this is enough to ground the truth of the statement that my associate knows what its like to be a millionaire in a way that I never have. While we have both entertained the same propositional content, namely "I am a millionaire" , we have entertained it in completely different ways. My associate believed that he was a millionaire, for however brief a time. I will never have such a belief, unless I actually win the lottery or fall prey to some similar drunken math. I have only hoped to be a millionaire, and imagined being a millionaire.
The phenomenological point is that the overall content of the experience is best articulated by taking into account both properties of the object of consciousness "I am a millionaire" and properties of the experience of the object of consciousness "believing", "wishing", "imagining" etc.

As for my metareflections on phenomenology, the whole experience of sharing these stories and then thinking about them in this way made me realize that my phenomenological training may amount to something like: the ability to make very fine and precise distinctions between both the types and tokens of objects, properties, and other sorts of categories in a very consistent way that allows for a standardized form in which to compare experiences. A bit of a mouthful, but I'm working on it. I'm beginning to realize that doing phenomenology means constantly formulating an ever clearer and more concise definition of phenomenology.


Mann on the peculiarity of new places

As I continue to slowly work my way through Thomas Mann's masterpiece, The Magic Mountain, I find a new gem every night. Since I have moved 3 times in just as many months this summer, this one was especially poignant:

There is, after all, something peculiar about the process of habituating oneself in a new place, the often laborious fitting in and getting used, which one undertakes for its own sake, and of set purpose to break it all off as soon as it is complete, or not long thereafter, and to return to one's former state. It is an interval, an interlude, inserted, with the object of recreation, into the tenor of life's main concerns; its purpose the relief of the organism, which is perpetually busy at its task of self-renewal, and which was in danger, almost in process, of being vitiated, slowed down, relaxed, by the bald, unjointed monotony of its daily course. But what then is the cause of this relaxation, this slowing-down that takes place when one does the same thing for too long at a time? Its is not so much physical or mental fatigue or exhaustion, for if that were the case, then complete rest would be the best restorative. It is rather something psychical; it means that the perception of time tends, through periods of unbroken uniformity, to fall away; the perception of time, so closely bound up with the consciousness of life that the one may not be weakened without the other suffering a sensible impairment. Many false conceptions are held concerning the nature of tedium. In general it is thought that the interesting and novelty of the time-content are what "make the time pass" ' that is to say, shorten it; whereas monotony and emptiness check and restrain its flow. This is only true with reservations. Vacuity, monotony, have, indeed, the property of lingering out the moment and the hour and of making them tiresome. But they are capable of contracting and dissipating the larger, the very large time-units, to the point of reducing them to nothing at all. And conversely, a full and interesting content can put wings to the hour and the day; yet it will lend to the general passage of time a weightiness, a breadth and solidity which cause the eventful years to flow far more slowly than those poor, bare, empty ones over which the wind passes and they are gone. Thus what we call tedium is rather an abnormal shortening of the time consequent upon monotony. Great spaces of time passed in unbroken uniformity tend to shrink together in a way to make the heart stop beating for fear; when one day is like all the others, then they are all like one; complete uniformity would make the longest life seem short, and as though it had stolen away from us unawares. Habituation is a falling asleep or fatiguing of the sense of time; which explains why young years pass slowly, while later life flings itself faster and faster upon its course. We are aware that the intercalation of periods of change and novelty is the only means by which we can refresh our sense of time, strengthen, retard, and rejuvenate it, and therewith renew our perception of life itself. Such is the purpose of our changes of air and scene, of all our sojourns at cures and bathing resorts; it is the secret of the healing power of change and incident. Our first days in a new place, time has a youthful, that is to say, a broad and sweeping, flow, persisting for some six or eight days. Then, as one "gets used to the place," a gradual shrinkage makes itself felt. He who clings or, better expressed, wishes to cling to life, will shudder to see how the days grow light and lighter, how they scurry by like dead leaves, until the last week, of some four, perhaps, is uncannily fugitive and fleet. On the other hand, the quickening of the sense of time will flow out beyond the interval and reassert itself after the return to ordinary existence: the first days at home after the holiday will be lived with a broader flow, freshly and youthfully--but only the first few, for one adjust oneself more quickly to the rule than to the exception; and if the sense of time be already weakened by age, or--and is a sign of low vitality-it was never very well developed, one drowses quickly back into the old life, and after four-and-twenty hours it is as though one had never been away, and the journey had been but a watch in the night.

This passage, the veritable form of romantic German prose if there ever was one, beautifully merges form and content. From a literature perspective, I would love to hear someone weigh in on how common it is for a novel to include a piece of narration this long and detailed--not by a character in the book in the form of monologue, dialogue, or soliloquy--just straight narration by an omniscent authorial voice. (I believe this novel is an instance of the German Bildungsroman genre). The passage itself is an "interval, an interlude, inserted, with the object of recreation" into the story. Its literary function mirrors the content of which it speaks.


Absorption & Reflection (part 2: or, On the prospects for moral phenomenology)

Perhaps my previous post (see below) was too hasty. There I characterized 'absorption' as an experiential modality. This means that absorption is a property of experiences rather than a property of the objects of experience. Thus, when I see this black cheese grater here on my desk, I do not say that my experience is black--rather, the cheese grater is black. My experience is visual, and thus an experiential property rather than a worldly property. So, to use Heidegger's familiar example, hammering a nail does not "have" the property of absorption. Rather, absorption is a property of the experience of hammering a nail. In this case I am not reflecting on my activity, I am simply absorbed by it. (Experiential properties presuppose a subject of experience).
I also characterized absorption as dangerous. Of course, I did not intend for this to be a blanket characterization--that is, there's certainly nothing wrong with being absorbed in hammering, or playing music for that matter; in fact, absorption may be a better experiential modality for these sorts of things. When I said that absorption could be dangerous, I meant that experience which rules out reflection is prone to violating other subjects. While driving to the hoop in a game of pick-up basketball, absorbed in my activity, the bodies and limbs of my opponents are merely things inhibiting my purposeful activity. (The reflective attitude of basketball is thus embodied by the referee, whose task it is to not become absorbed in the game and to remain detached from it). One can see how venerating an experiential modality that rules out reflection could have dehumanizing consequences. The subjectivity of others is not acknowledged. Persons become bodies. Lives become means to the telos guiding my absorbed activity. (Yes, this is all very loose, but its a blog--ah, I'm reflecting!)
But what I may have overlooked in my last post was the possibility of a modality of experience that could be called absorption, but with the modification of being an absorption-like modality specifically oriented to the subjectivity of others. This would mean a direct, intuitive, noninferential awareness of foreign subjectivities that would be more than just empathy (for that is what empathy is) in that it would include an additional experiential-property-aspect that we might describe as 'moral attunement'. I believe Levinas approaches ethics in a manner along these lines. For him, the experience of the other--the experience and not the other himself--grounds the first and foremost ethical principle not to violate the other. In Levinas' colorful prose, the "face" of the other "calls out" to me, demanding moral recognition.
If there is to be such a thing as moral phenomenology it would undoubtedly have to address this issue of a moral experiential modality. Regardless, the difficulty still remains as to whether this would be moral philosophy proper and not merely a descriptive treatment of moral experience.


Absorption & Reflection

I want to draw a contrast between absorption and reflection. This has vague historical influences, but if it turns out that I am misreading Heidegger or misappropriating something, just focus on the concepts and not where they may have come from. By "absorption" I mean the modality of experience where one is "absorbed" in an activity. We typically speak of athletes and musicians being "absorbed" in their activities, unaware of "what" they are doing insofar as they are simply doing. In this sort of mode the boundary between subject and object seems blurry. By "reflection" I mean the modality of experience where one "steps back" and "regards" the very activity they are undertaking. Philosophy has typically been done in a reflective way--attempting to step back from the immediacy of experience in order to gain a third person perspective on things so that the structure, or logic, of experience can be made explicit.

Does Heidegger favor absorption to reflection? If so, I see his romanticization of absorption as problematic, and open to a relativization or complete degeneration of moral life. On Heidegger's account, we have gradually "forgotten" Being as such. We have forgotten how to be authentically attuned to the world, how to authentically be-IN-the-world. I characterize this as our movement from absorption to reflection. Nietzsche speaks of something similar, vis a vis the movement from master to slave morality. Or we could examine Richard Moran's recent classic, Authority and Estrangement. We are, indeed, increasingly estranged from our biological heritage- from our absorption in the practical concerns of surviving in nature. But this estrangement brings authority. As we are increasingly able to step back to reflect, we are increasingly moral. Following Levinas, we can see estrangement as the condition for the possibility of ethics. One's confrontation with oneself is the a priori condition for the ethical encounter with the other. When absorbed in playful, spontaneous, or violent activity, the other is but a feature of my world--and this is not the world. This is my world; my consciousness has absorbed it into the activity which consumes both self and world. In this mode, the other is subject to my activity and has no ethical standing.


Demolition vs. Destruction

Tearing things down can be nice: old buildings; old theories; old selves. There is something very refreshing and enjoyable about the whole "out with the old, in with the new" attitude. But replacement is not destruction. If tearing things down only with the intention of building newer, better things is "out with the old, in with the new," then destruction is simply "out with it."

Tearing things down in a systematic, planned way, only with the intention to improve the space is automatically informed by the existing structure of what one is tearing down--even if only in a reactionary way. Such tearing down is better referred to as "demolition" rather than "destruction." Demolition is planned. Demolition is organized. Demolition is future-oriented insofar as one only demolishes something in order to "spruce things up."

Destruction resembles demolition only superficially. Destructive tearing down does not take place with the intention of repair or replacement. Destruction is best characterized by "out with it" because destruction simply seeks constant radical tearing down. Radical as in "to the root." The destructive attitude seeks to dispense with thoughts, plans, notions, ideas as soon as they arise--to pursue them to their end constantly and with vigor. Because of this urgency, destruction is, in the end, more creative than demolition. While demolition coolly plans improvements ("upgrades"), destruction does not wait, does not hesitate to act--even if it ends up being unwise or ill considered!

Thus, characterizing the destructive attitude as "joyful, spontaneous, exuberant, etc." would only tell half the story. Indeed, the truly destructive act can be all of these things. And yet, destruction can be masochistic, loathing, deranged, awful. It would be unwise to advocate destruction exclusively. But it may be equally unwise to assert that demolition is always the preferable precursor to creativity.


Back to Ze German Authors

If you know me at all, you know that Hermann Hesse is my favorite author. His last and greatest work Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game) [Das Glasperlenspiel] is my favorite book. I like his stories, I identify with his characters, I like his style.
In keeping with my love of Hesse, I have always meant to read Thomas Mann's work since he was a great friend and literary interlocutor to Hesse. In fact, in Magister Ludi Hesse names one of his characters "Thomas van der Trave," which is a veiled allusion to Mann, who grew up in a town on the Trave river in Germany. Van der Trave is one of the most enlightened and noble characters in Hesse's masterpiece.
Finally, I have made time for Thomas Mann. It was almost as if he made time for me, as I saw a wonderful hard back edition of his master work, The Magic Mountain, at a used book sale on campus. I have only read the first few chapters, but already I'm struck by wonderful passages such as this:

Two days travel separated the youth--he was still too young to have thrust his roots down firmly into life--from his own world, from all that he thought of as his own duties, interests, cares and prospects; far more than he had dreamed it would when he sat in the carriage on the way to the station. Space, rolling and revolving between him and his native heath, possessed and wielded powers we generally ascribe to time. From hour to hour it worked changes in him, like to those wrought by time, yet in a way even more striking. Space, like time, engenders forgetfulness; but it does so by setting us bodily free from our surroundings and giving us back our primitive, unattached, state. Yes, it can even, in the twinkling of an eye, make something like a vagabound of the pedant and Philistine. Time, we say, is Lethe; but change of air is a similar draught, and, if it works less thoroughly, does so more quickly.
-Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter 1939, p. 4.

Contemplating the last few sentences has yielded extreme aesthetic pleasure for me. Mann's prose is enchanting. He evokes the image of the "primitive, unattached state" in order to make palpable the grandiosity of Space and Time. Whatever it is that Hesse and Mann have in common, it is most striking in passages like this one.

The Oil Spill and the Man on the Moon

Everyone has heard this by now: "How is it that we can put a man on the moon but not plug a hole in the ocean?" Or some variant thereof.
I am utterly tired of hearing this. Not only is it irrelevant but it is poorly phrased. This analogy calls out for a corrective response rather than an actual answer. My counter to this question is: "That is misguided. Indeed we can put a man on the moon--but if something were to go wrong with his ship, how likely would we be that we could save him? Or would we most likely find ourselves in a situation similar to the one we are in now involving the Gulf of Mexico. What both of these feats--getting to the moon, drilling a mile underwater--have in common is that they represent typically human endeavors of being able to reach or get to some metaphorical (or literal) great height and have no idea how to get down. Our technology mirrors our teleology--to expand, to go outward, to explore ever further. It does not grow at a cautious pace, but rather in clumsy steps, some more ambitious than others, and some leading to a trip or major fall. The point is that having the technology to get to the moon does not entail that we have the technology to deal with a prolonged or abnormal situation of any kind on the moon. Likewise, we have the technology to drill for oil in the deepest water, but that does not entail that we have the technology to deal with a prolonged or abnormal situation of any kind on the seabed."
Now, whether we should regulate ourselves so that technology grows at a more cautious pace, is another question entirely.

A Pedagogical Issue

Much recent pedagogy operates on the assumption--the presupposition--that students (or anyone for that matter) have a 10-15 min. attention span. Accordingly, educators (or presenters of information of any kind for that matter) should tailor their lesson plans, presentations, and general mode of educating to this "established" empirical data. You might even say we educators have a duty to do as much as possible, or at least make a strong effort, to stimulate our students, to force them to engage, to "do them justice."
Another might object that this does our students (and citizens for that matter) a disservice. Our job as educators is to act as a resource of content for students--and it is up to them to take responsibility for mastering the information on their own. In fact, this laissez-faire approach may best embody an implicit duty of teaching not to coddle our students, so that they may learn to take responsibility for their own actions.
Personally, I tend to be more optimistic about students than most current pedagogy is. But perhaps my own anecdotal warrant for this optimism is as inadequate as, well, anecdote tends to be. I'd like to think that my own enthusiastic presentation of the material will be sufficient for the students, and that if it is not, its their fault and not mine. Am I a confident educator, or a naive well-wisher? Or even worse, am I actually negatively affecting students through my approach?
More generally, what's the best approach to pedagogy on the spectrum ranging from robust-progressive-liberal-educator to minimalistic-conservative-libertarian? Would love people's thoughts on this.


Kant's Majesty

Passages like this will always keep me coming back to Kant:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not need to search for them and merely conjecture them as though they were veiled in obscurity or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first begins from the place I occupy in the external world of sense and extends the connection in which I stand into an unbounded magnitude with worlds upon worlds and systems of systems, and moreover into the unbounded times of their periodic motion, their beginning and their duration. The second begins from my invisible self, my personality, and presents me in a world which has true infinity but which can be discovered only by the understanding, and I cognize that my connection with that world (and thereby with all those visible worlds as well) is not merely contingent, as in the first case, but universal and necessary. The first view of a countless magnitude of worlds annihilates, as it were, my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital force (one knows not how) must give back to the planet (a mere speck in the universe) the matter from which it came. The second, on the contrary, infinitely raises my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as this may be inferred from the purposive determination of my existence by this law, a determination not restricted to the conditions and boundaries of this life but reaching into the infinite.
-Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Mary J. Gregor, Cambridge 1996.

One might argue that the whole of philosophy is contained in this passage. Kant touches on contingency, necessity, time, space, and morality with grace and precision. Additionally, he does this with a phenomenological tone: there is something that its like to have this most unique perspective, that of the zoon logon echon (animal having reason)--our being-in-the-world as well as our being-beyond-the-world.


the Quantified Self

A recent article in the Times opened my eyes to a growing movement- the "data-driven life." There are many dedicated "self-trackers" out there now, who are taking advantage of increasingly small, light, and affordable technology (or simply just know-how sometimes) to diligently track various aspects of their lives. Think of this as keeping a journal on steroids. Keep track of your workouts? Why not write an app that lets you chart every aspect of your progress, where a heartrate/CO2 monitor as well, and correlate the data over months at time, while comparing it to the calorie counting data you have kept- all in order to gaze in what many are considering the most accurate mirror possible.
These sorts of specialized projects--tracking one's sleep, diet, concentration, coffee intake, flaxseed-influenced cognitive performance, etc.--point to an exciting, but possibly terrifying, trend in how to approach the famous Delphic dictum- "Know thyself." For so long, self-knowledge has been conceived as a sort of primitive access one has to one's own mental life. 'Insight', 'intuition', 'reflection', 'introspection', and 'meditation' have variously described this sort of privileged access. But why not approach self-knowledge scientifically? Something about these projects strike me as very true. They show how 'technology' is not a concept whose extension is limited to human artifacts. Technological artifacts embody a way of thinking- the technological mode of thought. This way of thinking is arguably the distinctively human mode of thought, insofar as humans are unique in their technological mastery over nature. A tool based approach to ourselves may be what allows evolution to continue beyond 'human'- to what we can now only label as 'post-human'. The inadequacy of this label resides in the fact that its meaning is purely dependent on what 'human' means in the first place. But what "post-humanists" have been postulating, roughly, is that technology will enable us to overcome our material bodies, and exist in a "nous[mind]-sphere" of pure consciousness. The Cartesian dream may have in fact been the offspring of the more primal human desire to overcome the so obviously imperfect, transitory sphere of nature and dwell in the eternal, perfect realm of pure spirit. Heck, maybe it all goes back to Plato afterall. Regardless, much of phenomenology and post-WWII european thought has been focused on Descartes' error to separate mind and body, and the pathologies it has bequeathed to Western culture. The later Husserl, Heidegger, and especially Merleau-Ponty have taught us that consciousness is fundamentally embodied, and that to separate our lived-bodily awareness from a higher sphere of consciousness is a mistake. We are insofar as we are in the world, you might say. Again, to be rough, this tradition has developed a suspicion of technology, aware of its artifacts as indicating a mode of thought- a mode of thought that leads to dehumanization, most evident in the wars of the 20th century, Auschwitz as their mechanized culmination. One of the purported reasons Heidegger grew dissatisfied with the Nazi party is that he recognized their overly technological form of domination as inauthentic.
I, for one, see both of these outlooks on technology--as the promise of overcoming our feeble condition, and as the promise of coldly slaughtering our fellow man--as excess and deficiency. We must avoid the excessive optimism of the 'post-humanists' who blindly praise every advance in technology as "progress". Yet the utter skepticism and cynicism regarding technology from the opposite pole is also guilty of blind generalization. Technology is not monolithic. An honest evaluation of technology is one that recognizes various technologies. Don Ihde is a notable exception to the vicious trend in the history of the philosophy of technology. Ihde recognizes that the various sense modalities create vastly different kinds of technology--all allowing for humans to extend their knowledge of nature in vastly divergent directions. A mature view of technology recognizes self-tracking and the data driven life as valiant efforts at self-knowledge. Ones that must be tempered with constant reminders that the data is merely one aspect--one of many that makes us human.

the Virtuous Workout

Recently, many friends and acquaintances have been devoting themselves to workouts carrying names that are probably in fact designed to inspire cult like worship. There's the "P90X" devotees- of course putting "X" in the title of anything is cool- bonus points for putting it at the end, after a number, thereby demanding that one simply pronounce it "Ex." Then there's this "Spartacus Workout" that apparently is responsible for the ripped abs of Hollywood's elite Persian-stompers. "Crossfit" is your more run of the mill generic workout title- it would be much snappier as "Crossfit-X." But this post isn't about these other workouts. Its about a new workout- one superior to all the "vicious" workouts out there.
That's right, vicious, as in the adjectival form of 'vice'.
What does working out have to do with vice?
Let me explain. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, characterizes virtues as "states" of the soul, as opposed to feelings and capacities. Any virtue exists as a state of the soul along a certain axis, whose poles are the vices corresponding to the virtue- which is the mean. For instance, bravery is the virtue concerned with rationally dealing with fear (more specifically, facing death in battle- badass, I know). The vice of excess is rashness (one extreme), and the vice of deficiency is cowardice (the other extreme). The virtuous person's soul is stable at some point between the two extremes. In the case of bravery, its slightly closer to rashness since rash behavior resembles brave behavior more than cowardice does. Furthermore, the vicious (as in vice-ful) person need not exhibit only one of the vices. Since virtues are characterized as stabilities, vices are characterized as instabilities. Thus, a vicious person tends to oscillate between vices. A rash person rushes in to battle, imitating the truly brave, only to retreat in cowardice once he realizes the true extent of the danger.
Now, what has all this got to do with workouts?
Glad you asked. Most workouts, diet plans, and general intentions by people to "get fit" result in the sort of vicious oscillation described above. People rush in, guns blazing, on a landmark "Monday morning," only to injure themselves, burn out early, or go on periodic food binges. Even the very structure and movements of many standard dude gym sessions exhibits this sort of unhealthy back-and-forth. Jerky repetitions. Overly long breaks between short intense sets. A whole day devoted to only one muscle group, not to be worked again for a week. You can see why so many of these programs fail.
Here, I wish to propose the "virtuous workout" as the stability corresponding to these other vicious plans. Of what does the virtuous workout consist, you ask? Namely, a series of isometric and balance oriented exercises. Every movement is stabilized by one's core, every exercise and repetition integrate several muscle groups, and emphasis is placed on quickly moving through a sequence of movements with as little rest as possible. Essential to the virtuous workout are an exercise ball, a bosu ball, and a medicine ball. With practice, one can learn to jump onto a workout ball without assistance, and pass a medicine ball back and forth between partners. This sort of sequence is fun, challenging, and above all- virtuous.


Fragments on Empathy

Recent conversations with strong individuals have prompted me to post some fragments from a paper that I started writing last year but never completed, nor refined. The original structure of the paper was meant to a. lay out the problem, b. provide a historical context, c. map the historical context onto the contemporary debate, d. show how the relevant connections provide insight. I only made it through an abbreviated laying out of the problem and a rough historical overview. Comments would be most welcome:

The Problem
The fundamental issue at hand is the need to reconcile two strongly contrasting intuitions regarding social perception. The first is that an essential property of mental states is that they are not accessible. Prima facie, the way I know about your mental state is fundamentally different from the way I perceive medium sized objects. The second is that the mental states of others, in some basic sense, are directly perceivable, and that understanding the expressive behavior of others is neither a matter of theorizing about it nor sequential processes of simulation and projection. The first intuition evokes Cartesian conceptions of the mental, while the second echoes Wittgenstein’s anti-Cartesian challenge: “Do you look within yourself, in order to recognize the fury in his face?” (Wittgenstein 1980, sect. 927).
Phenomenologists are quick to invoke Wittgenstein’s blunt common sense approach, but their discussions of social perception can result in puzzling conceptual formulations. Gallagher and Zahavi, for instance, claim “that the expressive relation between mental phenomena and behavior is stronger than that of a mere contingent causal connection, though weaker than that of identity” (Gallagher & Zahavi 2008, 185). What could this mean? How are we to conceive of such a relation? I appreciate this attempt to balance the aforementioned contrasting intuitions, but in order for phenomenological considerations to be significant, further conceptual clarification is needed.
In order to provide the necessary clarification, first we need to identify the concepts that are causing the confusion. Clearly, the concept ‘expression’ is crucial to the debate, as it provides the link between observable behavior and private mental states. But if we begin to explore this concept, we find that our ability to discern our own mental states becomes caught up in any debate about how to discern the mental states of others. As Davidson has pointed out, “If the mental states of other are known only through their behavioral…manifestation, while this is not true of our own mental states, why should we think our own mental states are anything like those of others?” (Davidson 2001, 207). Thus, if phenomenology is dedicated to studying consciousness from the first person perspective, it may appear that it has nothing to contribute to an account of social perception.

The problem of social perception is nothing new in philosophy. Indeed, “the problem of other minds” is at least as old as Descartes. However, the contemporary debate between phenomenology and ‘analytic’ theories of mind can be made clearer by examining a very similar debate that was ongoing around the turn of the 20th century.
The concept of ‘expressivity’ did much of the heavy lifting in early explanations of how phenomena with both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ reality are adequately grasped. At the turn of the century, philosophers, psychologists, and historians all saw empathy (einfühlung) and understanding (Verstehen) as intimately related concepts, both of which dealt with how we are able to grasp the ‘inner’ or ‘spiritual’ reality of something based on its ‘outer’ manifestation. Theodore Lipps, saw empathy as an especially important concept for explaining how aesthetic experience is constituted as meaningful. In Lipps (1903), our ability to understand and appreciate the beauty of external objects is directly linked to our ability to recognize other subjects as having minds. Lipps drew this connection “since for him the paradigm of beauty for human is the form, movement, and expressivity of the human body itself” (Steuber 2006, 7). This led Lipps to infer the existence of an underlying sub-personal mechanism that allows for the noninferential and quasi-perceptual character of aesthetic experience (ibid). Lipps characterized this sub-personal mechanism as ‘inner imitation’, and his primary intention was to causally explain why it is that we “move our legs when we see dancing” and “…” [citation needed].
While Lipps was interested in explaining the causal genesis of empathy through the function of basic sub-personal processes, other thinkers described empathy as a higher-level cognitive process. The early theorists in the hermeneutic tradition, namely Schleiermacher and Dilthey, also linked einfühlung and Verstehen, but had aims different from Lipps’. Schleiermacher saw empathy as the ability to understand other minds by imagining ourselves in various contexts [cite Scheleiermacher 1998, p. 92]. Dilthey expanded on this description, but opted for the term ‘reexperiencing’ (Nacherleben) to capture the methodological procedure of understanding others, guided by a variety of historical sources and by our knowledge of the general political, economic, social, and psychological state of affairs relevant for an adequate grasp of a particular historical time [cite Dilthey 1981, 172, 175-176]. As Steuber points out, “It was Dilthey’s…complete ‘psychologization’ of the interpretive process that made possible the common identification of the concept of understanding and empathy that we find at the beginning of the twentieth century” (2006, 11).
Stepping back for a moment, before examining Stein/Husserl’s phenomenological critique of the then prevailing views of empathy/understanding, we can see that at the turn of the century a similar twofold distinction within the concept of empathy was already taking shape. Taking Lipps as paradigmatic, one side of this distinction developed the concept of empathy as part of a psychological-causal-genetic account of what processes must take place within an individual when social perception occurs. The other side of this distinction, as exemplified by the hermeneutic tradition inaugurated by Schleiermacher and Dilthey, conceived of empathy as a highly cognitive process involved in interpreting the meaning of the signs, marks, and artifacts created by others. Lipps was interested understanding what sub-personal processes could cause social perception. Schleiermacher and Dilthey were interested in the personal processes that could allow for understanding others from disparate places and times. Before even considering what phenomenology might add to this characterization, it is noteworthy that contemporary empathy theorists have already mapped this framework onto the contemporary TT/ST debate. Steuber (2006) sees recent neurobiology as supporting Lipps’ conception of empathy, referring to this sub-personal, underlying causal mechanism as ‘basic empathy’—which he distinguishes from ‘reenactive empathy’, which allows us to “conceive of another person’s more complex social behavior as the behavior of a rational agent who acts for a reason,” which corresponds to the more robust concept of empathy developed in the hermeneutic tradition (20-21).
Edith Stein’s 1916 doctoral dissertation under Edmund Husserl, Zum Problem der Einfühlung (On The Problem of Empathy, trans. 1989) explores empathy as a phenomenon sui generis. On Stein’s account, Lipps’ theory of ‘inner imitation’ confuses social perception, or perception of ‘foreign experience’, with self-experience, or that which is ‘primordially given’. Her basic claim is that Lipps’ theory characterizes empathy as ‘convergence’ or ‘an experience of oneness’ between observer and what is observed. One way to understand this is by highlighting the difference between a memory and a flashback. When one has a memory, one perceives an experience that is no longer present. When one has a flashback, one experiences an experience as if it were literally present. In Stein’s terms, memory (along with fantasy) is an example of non-primordial experience—the subject has an experience of an experience that is not ‘fully given’ in the way that my present experience of my direct surroundings are given to me. A flashback, on the other hand, differs from a memory precisely because this line between non-primoridal and primordial experience is blurred. Empathy, in Stein’s sense, “can only be the non-primordial experience which announces a primordial one” (Stein 1989, 13-14). The potentially traumatic effects of a flashback are possible insofar as one is having an experience which is indistinguishable from the present, fully given experience typical of everyday perception. Thus, empathy shares the structure of memory and fantasy, whereas Lipps’ characterization of ‘inner imitation’ too easily leads to a conception of empathy having the same structure as flashback.
Lipps may also be understood as having confused the concepts of empathy and sympathy. Stein is careful to note that sympathy is a primordial experience whereas empathy is not, however this does not preclude the possibility of the two experiences coinciding. For example, there is a difference between my perceiving the grief in your facial expression and my feeling that grief. My empathetic perception of your grief may lead me to attribute a mental state to you, and it may serve as the basis for my theorizing about the larger context of your grief; but at no point is it necessary to this experience that I myself feel grief. If you are my friend or loved one, and I perceive that you are grieving, I myself, as someone who cares for your well-being, may also feel grief. But this primordial feeling of grief that I now have is better characterized as sympathy, or feeling with the other, and not empathy. Thus it is common for therapists to speak of the importance being empathetic while remaining unsympathetic. The job of the therapist is to understand the mental states of the other without being affected by them.
Lipps’ talk of ‘oneness’ and ‘convergence’ are especially problematic if carried out to its logical conclusion—telepathy. For if I truly was to ‘feel your pain’, the distinction between us as separate egos would be entirely erased. If I feel your pain as you feel it, then does it even make sense to call this empathy? The phenomenon we set out to explain, under the name ‘empathy’, was the phenomena whereby I am somehow aware of your mental states. If I am experiencing your mental states qua you and not qua I, this is not empathy.


Recent Work

In this paper I will explain how the notions of necessity, a priority, and analyticity have traditionally been related in light of the classical notion of a concept. This notion has its roots in Gottlob Frege’s notion of a sense, and his division of reality into three realms. I will show that the Fregean view of how language relates to reality is difficult to maintain in light of an example put forward by Keith Donnellan. Both Donnellan and Hilary Putnam retain the Fregean view, leading to unsatisfying conclusions regarding the nature of necessity.
Frege divides reality into three distinct “realms.” The first two are relatively familiar: the outer world (public objects perceiveable by the five senses that exist independently of anyone’s thinking or perceiving) and the inner world (private ideas that are imperceptible to the five senses and depend for their existence on the subjective life of a thinker). Frege’s third realm consists of senses, which are not perceivable with the five senses, yet are public and exist independently.
A sense is a unique way that an object is presented to a thinker. On Frege’s account of language, the meaning of a term includes both its sense and its referent. A referent is what the term picks out in the world, and the sense is the unique way a referent is presented. For example, the terms ‘the morning star’ and ‘the evening star’ refer to the same object in the world (Venus), but have different senses—i.e., they pick out the referent in unique ways. Properly understood, a term expresses a sense and refers to an object. The sense determines the object.
A thought is the sense of a sentence, constituted by the senses of its terms. A thought, in virtue of its representational character, is “something for which the question of truth can arise at all” (Frege 36). That is, thoughts are about something other than themselves—namely, the stuff and structure of the world. Thus, philosophers who take a Fregean view of language attempt to analyze the properties of thoughts in order to learn about the structure of the world.
Fregean senses “embody” or “contain” what C.I. Lewis calls criteria of application. For Lewis, the criteria of application for a term, t, is the set of sensible features that determine the appropriate application of t. These features are the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be appropriately called t. The classical notion of a concept is a mental representation of these conditions. Thus, while technically different, for this paper it will be sufficient to think of senses and concepts as uniquely characterizing sets of conditions.
For Lewis, we can reflect on the senses of terms and discover inclusion relations. For example, if we reflect on the sense of ‘square’ and the sense of ‘rectangle’, we find that the criteria of application for ‘square’ already include the criteria of application for ‘rectangle’. Thus, we come to know the necessary truth expressed by (1) “All squares are rectangles”. Necessity is a metaphysical property, characterizing features of the world and its structure. Necessary features must be the case, as opposed to contingent features, which could vary. One can know the necessity of (1) a priori as opposed to a posteriori. This is an epistemological distinction. A posteriori knowledge depends on sense experience, whereas (1) can be known simply by understanding the meanings of ‘square’ and ‘rectangle’, requiring no sense experience. Furthermore, (1) is analytic, and not synthetic. This is a semantic distinction, characterizing language and its relation to the world. Sentences that are true in virtue of the rules of language are analytic. Sentences that require something nonlinguistic to make them true are synthetic.
The concurrence of necessity, a priority, and analyticity is a feature of the Fregean view of language in which senses determine objects. If we consider Donnellan’s example, (2) “All whales are mammals”, we see that the Fregean view encounters difficulties. On this view we should see that (2) is analytic by reflecting on ‘whale’ and ‘mammal’, grasp the inclusion relations therein, and know a priori that (2) expresses a necessary truth. However, a sailor who clearly understands what ‘whale’ means, and can accurately identify whales without fail, may very well never know that all whales are mammals. The sailor’s sense of ‘whale’ is something like ‘large, oblong sea creature with a blowhole’. Clearly the sense of ‘whale’ does not include the criteria of application for ‘mammal’ if we consider the sailor a competent speaker. Now suppose that some of the creatures we have been calling whales turn out not to have mammary glands, precluding them from being called mammals. Are these creatures still whales? Does (2) still express a necessary truth?
Donnellan and Putnam both say this example confronts us with a choice about how we use language. On their Fregean view, what determines what a whale is is not distinct from what ‘whale’ means. If what we speak about is mediated by senses, then what a whale is is determined by the sense of ‘whale’. If we base our answer to the question of whether to call these new creatures whales on the sense of ‘whale’, there are metaphysical consequences; for (2) would no longer be necessary, and necessity is a metaphysical property. Thus, we are faced with the paradoxical conclusion that necessary truths can somehow change. Alternatively, we might base our answer on the nature of the creatures themselves, in which case these creatures without mammary glands are not whales.


Ad(ded) Sense

I can hardly watch TV without constantly flipping channels. I suppose I am a child of the postmodern, or some Deleuzian symptom has got the best of me. In any case, one of my favorite past times has become flipping between Fox News and MSNBC. I have come to view both as theater at this point, and just because I lean left politically doesn't mean that I don't find the way things are presented on MSNBC to be equally absurd. Take last night for instance:

Fox- Glenn Beck and Al Sharpton bearing their souls on the right to free expression, Beck trying to liken Tea Partiers to Civil Rights Movement participants (in itself laughable). However, just as I'm shedding a tear and actually feeling as though these two men are on to something: commercial for adult onset ADHD ("Are you dumb?- take these pills!" - a recurring theme we shall find).

Flip back to MSNBC: in perfect juxtaposition, MSNBC is airing an ad for the New York Times weekender subscription! ("Are you very literate, and very cultured?- buy this!")

Back to Fox- effervescent hot tub ad with old lady moaning in delight in the tub- 'nuff said.

MSNBC- "Do you like bourgeois sports?- buy this satellite TV SOCCER package!"

Haha, at this point, let's take stock. We have one view enjoying his NY Times with soccer on in the background, and another soaking in a hot tub to relieve pain while popping attention pills to be less dumb.

back to Fox- boner pills- (what else?)

MSNBC- get your masters from so-and-so

This rounds out the picture nicely. Now back to the programing:

MSNBC- the greatness of Obama’s nuclear treaty, likening it to Reagan’s (a common MSNBC tactic: "Hey conservatives, you may hate Obama, but Obama is being like Reagan, so now you say you hate Reagan- you're hypocrites! Haha, we got you!")

Flip back to Fox: Beck has a blackboard out and says “anti-capitalist ‘world-wide workers’” “radicals” “Marxist” and “communists” and “in the white house” in one sentence. (Even better is Beck's delivery. He has a way of throwing his hands up and shrugging while jutting his lower lip out into your living room. "He's so earnest!")

MSNBC- Rupert Murdoch being trashed by Rachel Maddow and a pundit from the Huffington Post.

Fox- hands free cell phone device commercial- “Jupiter Jack”

MSNBC- Boo Tea Party!

All of this went on for half an hour. And originally I turned on the TV to hear some news about Kyrzgstan and see some images of revolt. Not mentioned once. (And yes, I checked CNN, they were busy outsourcing their news coverage to Twitter- cf. Jon Stewart on this issue).


Philosophy in Play

Having just read the first dialogue of my professor Ermanno Bencivenga's Philosophy in Play, I thought it was worth sharing some of the best passages:

"...any action can be located in an indefinite number of contexts, of different (spatiotemporal) width, where different choices turn out to be natural. If the context of my present behavior is limited to myself and the last five minutes, an ontology of tables may be the most natural one, whereas if it's to be understood as mankind facing the world during this century, it may be just as natural to put it in terms of particles. So, instead of solving the problem, a reference to the context seals its mystery, for in order to use the expression "the context" meaningfully one must postulate the very act of choice among infinitely many alternatives that reference meant to account for" (29).

"I said that the presence of philosophers is advantageous for the community, but this doesn't mean--as one often thinks--that it's advantageous for it to have official institutions where philosophers can work...Because an institution must be something definite, with a set of rules, with well-defined "institutional" tasks, established once and for all...But here we're talking about a practice that contradicts all definitions , denies all boundaries, mocks all prohibitions. We're talking about a way of 'articulating' ideas that might frighten the very people who had the ideas in the first place...Indeed its a commonplace that philosophy is never done at the philosophy department...Which doesn't mean that the people doing philosophy shouldn't work and be paid in a department; in my opinion, however, they do philosophy precisely to the extent that they remain at the margins of the tasks for which they are paid, or even oppose them...Articulating a new philosophy is a value in itself, and if in order to convince people to do so it's necessary to use the rhetorical artifice of referring to the difficulties of the old philosophy then let there be artifice, let there be rhetoric, let those lies come forth that will earn us heaven" (43-44, my emphasis).


We're just walking!

There is a gigantic upside-down pyramid atop a tower of glass on this campus. No joke! Approaching it, under the light of a full moon, whisps of cloud set in relief against it, it is captivating. All other buildings pale in comparison to this architectural triumph. One immediately associates it with the very knowledge it houses. It is the engineering building after all. This giant glass tower contains a stairwell- visible from the outside. One can just imagine hoards of engineers scuttling up and down the stairs all day, tapping clipboards with yellow #2 pencils, gesticulating to one another about structural integrity gradients- all of this on display in a giant glass terrarium- "So this is how they behave!" This sort of thing can you very excited. Soon, you are screaming about engineers and their habitat, rambling on about inane Tower of Babel metaphors.

"Can you guys keep it down?"
We're just walking!


For all of my students

If you insist on not paying attention in lecture, and staring at your laptops the whole time, only to email me later once you realize you need the information, then perhaps you will stumble upon this page while you are surfing the internet so diligently, thus allowing you to maintain your I-get-all-my-knowledge-about-the-world-from-a-computer paradigm and still learn what is being said in your very (and merely physical) presence.

The mind is not like a video camera. In lecture, when I look up and 10 minutes has gone by and I find Prof. talking about Alpha Centaurian aliens opening up brains in the same way that we study the atmosphere of Venus, and I have no idea how he got there, I may actually be experiencing first hand one of the salient features of consciousness that Prof. has been blathering about all the while. I realize (by inferring) that he is int he middle of a lengthy explanation; but if you were to ask me to reproduce what he has said, I would be at a total loss. How can this be? I have been sitting here the entire time. My eyes have been affected by the same light, my ears affected by the same air vibrations, as someone who could reproduce his words. Yet I have no consciousness of the past 10 minutes. Have I been unconscious this whole time? Of course not. I was rehearsing the same line of a Pearl Jam song over and over as I re-imagined my strange dream from last night about an amazing new iphone. Clearly I have been conscious this whole time, I have even been paying close attention to something- just not what is presently going on before me. But how have I been paying attention to something that is not present? Can a billiard ball be caused to move by a force or object that is not present? By something which in no way comes into contact with it? Clearly my ability to pay attention to things does not function according to the same laws as the billiard ball's motion. When describing how my conscious attention works we must adopt a new set of terms to describe this new set of properties.

This is the driving idea behind Searle's refutation of computer functionalism and his own "biological naturalism." (But doesn't this just make Searle a property dualist, you ask? He insists not. Property pluralist? Apparently he has admitted as much...)


The Peripheral Self and Video Chat

One of Sartre's great insights was that the self that we can observe in reflection is not the true self. The true self eludes its own gaze, remaining visible only on the periphery of whatever experience one is absorbed in. Self-consciousness is the pre-reflective sense of peripheral awareness granted us by this peculiar structure. This does not preclude the ability to 'step back' and regard our own experiences. I may be absorbed in the activity of looking at a painting, but I also have the ability to think of that entire experience. Whether in recollection or by freely imagining, by observing my own experiences I perceive their subject-object structure, and in this way I 'reflectively' know myself. But this is not myself, for if it were myself, then who is the subject of this very act of recollection, or imagination? We quickly see that the pre-reflective self that is constantly absorbed in its own activity can never be adequately grasped. We can understand its structure by experiencing its elusive character, but we cannot clearly and distinctly perceive it in the same manner that we perceive the objects of our everyday experiences.

Do you not find that you experience this very same structure, in a surprisingly concrete fashion, when speaking with someone on Skype, or any video-chat program? Of course, this is a metaphor, but hear me out and see if you see Sartre's structure reiterated in this seemingly mundane experience. When chatting with a friend using some standard program, a window pops up with his image. I see him there on my screen, the window containing him appearing as a window into his environs. Clicking the 'full screen' option here only makes the experience I am describing more vivid. Now, after full-screening, my laptop is less a computer than a post-modern telephone- a sleek version of the ones we saw in all of the movies, audio-visual in nature. The camera trained on me is embedded directly in hardware that presently frames my friend's face. Looking directly at his face on my screen, I look (nearly) directly into the camera, thus presenting my face on his screen in a like profile. But here is the peculiarity: included in my image of my friend is a small inset- usually in the lower left corner- which shows how I appear on his screen, to me. That is, as I look at my friend in the center of my screen, always there, in the periphery of my view, is me. This mirrors Sartre's story, for this peripheral image is me only if I do not look at it. So long as I am absorbed in the conversation, looking at the center of the screen where my friend resides, allowing his surrogate electronic eye to capture my face head-on, the image in my periphery is in fact faithful to how I appear on his screen- how I appear to others. But the moment I turn my eye from his face and look over at my own, the moment I 'step back' and regard the entire experience, the self that I identify as 'me' in the image has been fundamentally altered. It no longer appears as it does to others, for it cannot look me in the eye. I look over at myself looking over. I turn to catch a glimpse of the self which I know is mine, only to find that it has already turned away.

This structural similarity to the Sartrean self makes video chat a strangely alienating experience, but this is easily remedied. Go to the options menu and disable the peripheral self. Now, might we extend the remedy?

Descriptive, not Explanatory

I think the essence of Husserl's phenomenology can be gleaned from the following passage, which is worth quoting at length:

We may now note that to every positing name a possible judgment self-evidently corresponds, or that to every attribution a possible predication corresponds and vice versa. After we have rejected the essential sameness of these acts, we can assume only that we have here a case of law-governed connection, and of connection governed by ideal law. Ideal connections do not point to the causal genesis or the empirical concomitance of the acts they coordinate, but to a certain ideally governed, operative belongingness of the ideatively graspable act-essences in question, which have their 'being' and law-governed ontological order, in the realm of phenomenological ideality, just as pure numbers and pure specifications of geometric patterns have their respectively in the realms of arithmetical and geometric ideality. If we enter the a priori reaches of pure Ideas, we can likewise say that 'one' (in pure, i.e. unconditional universality) could not perform the one set of acts without being able to perform those coordinated with them, and this on account of the specific semantic essence of the acts concerned. (Logical Investigations, V.35)

This has a Kantian flavor to it. We are here attempting to establish the conditions under which knowledge is possible, and thus these conditions will not assume a genetic role, but rather a descriptive one. My question could generally be stated as: how can descriptive endeavors enrich genetic ones and vice versa?

[added several days later]:
It was true to say that our considerations could not be scientific ones...And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, entry 109- as quoted in Avrum Stroll's Sketches of Landscapes, 1998).

Wittgenstein and Husserl, do not, of course, have very similar philosophical projects- especially not the later Wittgenstein. But here, what does Wittgenstein mean by 'explanation' and 'description'? Could this not be likened to Husserl's phenomenological method, which uses terms like 'motivation' to express how parts of an experience are related without explaning that relation in terms of causality? Husserl's project is one of description rather than explanation, and perhaps is more similar to Wittgenstein's than most think.


Philosophy as Engineering

In another interesting conversation with a colleague, philosophy was likened to engineering. He said something along the lines of, "In philosophy, as in engineering, we focus on a specific problem in light of a certain array of tools, or methods, to go about solving the problem." So when a philosopher approaches a problem like "what makes a mental state conscious"? he does not begin in isolation. He examines the array of higher order and same order theories, how they have been developed and critiqued, where trends have emerged, where features have been deemed trivial. Similarly, an engineer designing a new bridge does not need to go out and discover the load-bearing properties of concrete. Both already work within a specific domain of tools and methods that have been devised by others to work on the problem. Both may find these tools and methods inadequate, just as they may find previous constructions inadequate. Nothing rules out the possibility of devising radically new tools and methods, or radically new constructions. And yet, both will construct their solution to a problem knowing that better tools and methods will gradually evolve that allow for newer, more stable constructions. The hope is that one's own temporally bounded technique and construction might be deemed a contribution rather than a misstep, or even worse, a perversion.


A Surprisingly Communal Activity

Someone whom I respect has described philosophy as "a surprisingly communal activity," or maybe it was "communal affair," or something else to that effect. The "surprising" part about philosophy being a communal activity is that it is often surprising when it unfolds that way. We tend to think of philosophy as something done with the door closed, the curtains drawn, and the fire smoldering- so as to prevent unwanted pollution from seeping into 'pure' subjectivity. The daily routine of the philosopher is one of ordered discipline, faithfully attending to his duties, methodically working through his tasks, shutting out the unwanted noise. And yet, in those moments when the door swings open, the curtains are pulled back, and the prattle from the outside finds its way in, philosophy tends to happen. There is no predicting how it will happen, there is no law-like regularity to how it unfolds. It is the product of uncertainty, of speculation, and of what I am now saying is most surprising of all: communal activity.