Philosophy Feed

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and SlowThinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know I'm way late to the game in reading this book and saying that everyone needs to read it. Though I'm also glad that I read it just now, as we continue to go through the epistemic crisis related the epidemiological one. Last week it was particularly apt that I was reading the chapters on risk assessment as people were once again having to adjust their behaviors based on the surging Delta variant.

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Intersectionality

Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, HorizonsIntersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons by Anna Carastathis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A thorough, informative, and compelling discussion of intersectionality. Kimberle Crenshaw's original writings introducing the metaphor are carefully interpreted. They are also situated within a long tradition of Black feminist thought. Carastathis also considers a wide variety of criticisms and later developments of the idea. And she supplements it with decolonial ideas of Gloria Anzaldua, Andrea Smith, and Maria Lugones in ways that are really compelling. This is a heavy academic work, full of theory, but if you are interested in understanding this concept of Critical Race Theory more in-depth, I'd recommend the book.

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Upheavals of Thought

Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of EmotionsUpheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions by Martha C. Nussbaum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the last month I have been engrossed in this over 700 page treatise on the emotions. And it is a brilliant masterpiece. I've read so many of Nussbaum's books but hadn't ever ventured this major work until this spring as I'm dealing with my own emotional turmoil around my divorce. It seemed a perfect time to connect my academic interest with personal need.

And what a great fit this book was. Despite it's intellectual rigor it is a an eloquent, emotional, engaging read. A true literary work, which few philosophical masterpieces achieve. One only wishes that this was more widely read.

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Freedom in the Making of Western Culture

Freedom: Freedom In The Making Of Western CultureFreedom: Freedom In The Making Of Western Culture by Orlando Patterson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a remarkable achievement.

One is impressed by the sheer breadth of this work. The number of disciplines in which Patterson is well read, evidences understanding, and is able to synthesize--sociology, history, philosophy, classics, literature, theology, biblical studies. His chapters on Saint Paul demonstrate that he had read some of what at the time were the leading scholars on Paul and scholarship that was then new and paradigm shifting, but before the paradigm had fully shifted. One would expect someone not an expert in a field to only know the conventional understanding not the latest groundbreaking ideas.

One is also impressed by his analytical abilities, the way he structures an argument, and the eloquence he musters.

And there is the power and originality of his theses, the core one of which is that freedom, the central value of the Western world, is intimately tied to the history of slavery. And that the dark side of freedom has been carried into contemporary debates.

Other of this theses are also original and compelling, such as that it was women who first prioritized freedom and women who elevated personal freedom again at the close of the Middle Ages and the dawning of modernity.

A truly remarkable book.

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Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding / Concerning the Principles of MoralsEnquiries Concerning the Human Understanding / Concerning the Principles of Morals by David Hume
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's been 25 years since I last read Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. I don't remember being all that engaged or impressed by it before. Nor is my old copy all that marked up. At the time I directed more attention and interest to the first enquiry.

But this time reading Hume I found it delightful. It is an enjoyable reading experience. Both enjoyable because engagingly well written and enjoyable intellectually, to reflect on the ideas presented.

I particularly liked Hume's emphasis on the pleasing social virtues that make life easier and more enjoyable. For instance, he describes entering a well-0rdered home as a guest and how the very site of the way the room is arranged and decorated "presents us with the pleasing ideas of ease, satisfaction, and enjoyment." Then the family enters and their "freedom, ease, confidence, and calm enjoyment" express their happiness and excite the sympathies of the guest, bringing the prospect of a joyful visit.

If you need a pick-me-up about positive emotions leading to a good social life, then take the time to read some Hume.

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Time of the Magicians

Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented PhilosophyTime of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy by Wolfram Eilenberger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A look at German philosophy in the decade of the 1920's, focusing on Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Cassirer, and Martin Heidegger. A well told tale. Eilenberger combines story with acute analysis of these complex philosophers and their ideas. These are some of the most easy comprehended introductions to their thought I've encountered.

Opening in the aftermath of the First World War with its traumatizing scars upon these thinkers, their families, and cultures, and concluding as the horizon begins to darken with the clouds of National Socialism, Germany in the 1920's is fertile ground for new philosophical visions. One wonders what impact our current global pandemic might have in seeding new thoughtforms in the 2020's?

While the stories are enjoyable and the discussions of their philosophies are lucid, I completed the volume unsure of the actual point. What larger lessons was I supposed to draw from the book? Why these four particular thinkers? It didn't seem that the focus on these four and their limited interactions (though much is made of a public debate between Cassirer and Heidegger) generated any overarching takeaways.

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Hume: An Intellectual Biography

Hume: An Intellectual BiographyHume: An Intellectual Biography by James A. Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are significant stretches of this book overburdened with details, making it at times a dense read.

However, I did enjoy it. It's best gift is understanding Hume within his intellectual context. At two particular places this was most enjoyable. First in learning more about the philosophical influences upon him, such as Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hutcheson, and others. Second was learning about the differing understandings of British history in the 18th century, in particular how those different understanding approached the concept of liberty. This was relevant to then understanding what approach Hume took in his own History.

The book had a grand conclusion, stating that Hume had achieved the dreams he set for himself as a young man. Would that more biographies could end that way.

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"Who Made the Earth?"

The most splendid conversation with Sebastian just now.

He walked into my office and asked, "Who Made the Earth?"

"Let me finish this e-mail and then we'll talk."  Finish e-mail.  "Okay, what's your question again?"

"Who made the Earth?"

"God did."

"How?"

So I go over and crouch down beside him.  "At the beginning of time there was an explosion [wide-eyed excitement] called the Big Bang.  And that created space and time which then began to expand forming the universe and inside [I'm using hand gestures here] there was stuff forming and that stuff came together and built bigger stuff and eventually there were stars and planets."

"Including the Earth?"

"Yes."

"So that's how!"  More wide-eyed excitement.

Then I asked, "Where did that question come from?  From your brain?"

"I've had that question a long time.  Since you got me I've had that question."

OOOO!  Cartesian innate ideas?


The Dark Years?

The Dark Years?The Dark Years? by Jacob L Goodson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first met Jacob Goodson more than twenty years ago when he was a brand new freshman just starting his pursuit of philosophy. He was eager to learn everything. Now he's an established professor with a few published books.

In this volume Goodson discusses some predictions that the philosopher Richard Rorty made in the 1990's about America in the 21st century. Rorty predicted that from 2014-2045 America would through dark years--gun violence and racial unrest would proliferate, a populist strongman would be elected in 2016, we'd experience a Second Great Depression, etc. According to Rorty this resulted from the failures of the academy to address the concerns of the poor, generating resentment that led to the rise of populism.

Of course, as these predictions have come true, attention has returned to Rorty's thoughts. Goodson's book discusses how we should understand and evaluate Rorty's predictions.

The second aspect of Rorty's 21st century predictions is that we would come out of the dark years with a new and renewed politics based on love. Through the dark years Americans, through reading novels and scripture, would develop sympathy that generate shame about the inequities of our system resulting in social solidarity. More of Goodson's book focuses on these predictions, finally centering on what kind of hope we might have that this outcome will materialize.

A worthy contribution to public philosophy and our attempt to better understand the moment we are living through.

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Pandemic Philosophy

Cross posted from my church column.

Back in March the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben criticized the approach to the virus then taking hold.  He wrote,

The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.

His was one of the first philosophical writings on the pandemic, but since then philosophers have been very busy commenting on the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical implications of this crisis.  Some have also been involved practically—for example a group of philosophical ethicists in Sweden helped to devise that nation’s triage criteria for ventilators. 

Let me draw attention to three of the ethical writings I’ve found provocative and worthy of consideration as we all do our best to think well and wisely during this crisis.

First is an article from May by Dalia Nassar, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sydney, that developed Agamben’s ideas and responded to some of his many critics.  Nassar points out that

the COVID-19 shutdown infringes on every aspect of our selves: not only our biological lives, but also our psychological or emotional lives, our social and political lives, our intellectual lives, and so on. That the shutdown affects every aspect of our lives should mean that every aspect of our lives should be taken into consideration when decisions about restrictions or easing restrictions are being made. It means, in other words, that ethicists, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, philosophers and theologians should be part of the decision-making process concerning the right response to the crisis.

I agree with Nassar that trying to reduce the human person to biological health is wrong and that the full richness of the human person and human life must be weighed when we are making individual and communal decisions during this crisis.  She goes on to encourage democratic processes of decision-making:

The ideal response to a crisis must be capacious, context sensitive and democratic. It must take account of the complexity and many-sidedness of life and of the concrete lives of all living beings. It must consider differences across regions and cultures. Only in this way can we develop an adequate response to the . . . crisis: one that aims not to neglect, leave out, or put in harm’s way any of the beings that share this planet.

In June I read “Surging Solidarity: Reorienting Ethics for Pandemics” by Jordan Pascoe & Mitch Stripling, in which they argued that our ethical frameworks must be revised in response to the pandemic.  They offered their alternative:

We develop a pandemic ethics framework rooted in uBuntu and care ethics that makes visible the underlying multidimensional structural inequities of the pandemic, attending to the problems of resource scarcity and inequities in mortality while insisting on a response that surges existing and emergent forms of solidarity.

I thought their paper provided the most robust, interesting ethical analysis I’ve read.  They emphasized relational approaches rooted in the South African concept of Ubuntu and feminist care ethics.  I liked this claim, “Our framework understands disasters as producing networks of interlinked people who need care and are giving it; the ethics we propose will help to surge and sustain that entire network, not force us to break it apart and choose between the pieces.” 

They too were advocating a more holistic approach to the human person, not settling for reductionist accounts.  And by doing so were able to explain in one theory the importance of public health measures while also criticizing how they violate core aspects of our humanity:

The tragedy of our dangerously overwhelmed health care system is not only that there are not enough ventilators to go around. It is also that people must suffer alone, must die alone, must give birth alone; it is that our system is so broken that even a basic right to human company must be surrendered (Goldstein and Weiser 2020). Many of us fear not just getting sick, not just dying, but dying alone. Many who are grieving are grieving because they could not be present for a person essential to them, for birth or for death or for suffering. We are grieving not just the inevitable moral failures that will come from lack of resources, but from the lack of humanness, of being human with and through one another. These, too, are moral failures.

Yes.  That people were not able to be with their sick and dying loved ones was one of the most cruel and inhumane aspects of this year.  Which should compel us to imagine and develop different approaches in the future so that such inhumane burdens can be prevented.

A final essay from July with the very academic title “Virus interruptus: An Arendtian exploration of political world‐building in pandemic times” by Rita A. Gardner and Katy Fulfer develops from the philosophy of the ever-more-essential Hannah Arendt.  In their abstract they describe their project:

We explore the ways in which we can engage in political world‐building during pandemic times through the work of Hannah Arendt. Following Arendt’s notion of the world as the space for human togetherness, we ask: how can we respond to COVID‐19’s interruptions to the familiarity of daily life and our relationship to public space? By extending relational accounts of public health and organizational ethics, we critique a narrow view of solidarity that focuses on individual compliance with public health directives. Instead, we argue that solidarity involves addressing structural inequities, both within public health and our wider community. Finally, we suggest possibilities for political world‐building by considering how new forms of human togetherness might emerge as we forge a collective ‘new normal’.

Their discussion focuses on togetherness as essential for responding to a crisis and yet the paradox of our traditional modes of togetherness being impossible.  They are critical of judging those who are non-compliant with public health measures, arguing that individual compliance is not the true crisis of solidarity revealed this year, but rather the larger systemic inequities.  Our frustration and anger should be directed at those concerns.  One reason they resist too much judgment of individual behavior is that the only way out of this crisis is to develop greater trust in one another:

Indeed, it seems as if many societies are at a serious juncture where we have the potential for making new choices about how we want to live together. The COVID‐19 crisis has also shown us that we too have a choice in that we can live our lives in fear and isolation, or we can start to trust one another again as we move back to our public spaces. Establishing trust will be important in helping people learn to adapt to the new normal in organizational spaces and other public places.

They conclude that the virus creates an opportunity to rethink human social and political relationships and to address the inequities and lack of trust we’ve seen: “An Arendtian politics is concerned with how we share the world in such a way that it becomes a place of belonging, not just for a few, but for humanity.”

These essays all share a robust vision of the human person which leads to an emphasis on relationships of solidarity, care, and trust and the opportunity to create new and better institutions and systems. 

This crisis does compel us into deep, visionary, and careful thinking as we use our best judgment to make wise and good decisions for ourselves, our families, our institutions, and our society.  We don’t want “bare life;” we want to belong to a flourishing humanity.