Philosophy Feed

At Home: "It is Moral"

“'Marguerite Derrida has just left us, a whole world is leaving,' announced the Institute of Advanced Studies in Psychoanalysis (IHEP) in a press release dated March 21, 2020." The widow of the acclaimed French philosopher has died of COVID-19.  

In Italy the moral, social, and human cost of no funerals is mounting.

A criticism of Giorgio Agamben published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (unfortunately behind a paywall) rightly points out that writings on the pandemic have focused on the moral crisis:

Agamben correctly observes that the question of the proportionality of the response is not a scientific one; it is moral. And the answer is not obvious. Here, at least, Agamben arrives at a serious question. This is exactly the kind of question we had hoped the humanist could help us answer.

Note, if you've missed the discussion of Agamben, I've been tracking it in my recent blog posts on the pandemic.

This author zeroes in on some appropriate criticisms, but I feel as if her essay is just the beginning of a response.  I was left wanting more from the final section.  Also wanting her to grapple more fully with the story out of Italy about lack of funerals, for instance.

The intellectual response is growing this week.  Here at The Point, one can read plague journals from around the world, including a shortened version of that Chronicle of Higher Education article not behind a paywall.

And this evening I listened to a good podcast interview with the always interesting Anne Applebaum about authoritarian opportunism during the crisis and how the USA should learn from this to modernize its bureaucracy.  

Yesterday I encountered the Philosophers on Medicine podcast, which has yet to grapple fully with this crisis, but they do address some of the concerns that it raises.

An interesting Midlands Voice in our local paper wondered if the luck of the Boomers has finally come to an end as they now face their biggest challenge as a generation.

My long planned sermon theme for this coming Sunday is "To Be More . . . Hopeful."  What seemed like a serious challenge at the start of the week quickly took shape, as I will be exploring some of the things I've preached about hope before and testing them against the current crisis.

And just because this post lacked any cute Sebastian photos, here is a previously unshared one from a few days ago.

In a tree


At Home: Difficult Night

I confess last night and this morning were rough for me.  I believe I can safely say I'm depressed.  This situation is so contrary to all my normal ways of operating and many of my normal coping mechanisms for difficult situations don't seem well-suited to this one.  I do think it would be easier if I could be at a cabin by the lake with my husband and son and we had nothing to do.  I vacation where you are completely disengaged is something many of us long for, but this situation is not that, obviously.  I'm envious of those who can be home with family reading and getting bored.  

Last night I started reading W. S. Merwin's Garden Time, one of his last volumes of poetry, with reflections on aging and growing limitations.  There is a darkness to it that seemed fitting.  This poem stood out the most to me:

Living with the News

Can I get used to it day after day
a little at a time while the tide keeps
coming in faster the waves get bigger
building on each other breaking records
this is not the world that I remember
then comes the day when I open the box
that I remember packing with such care
and there is the face that I had known well
in little pieces staring up at me
it is not mentioned on the front pages
but somewhere far back near the real estate
among the things that happen every day
to someone who now happens to be me
and what can I do and who can tell me
then there is what the doctor comes to say
endless patience will never be enough
the only hope is to be the daylight.

I haven't seen much yet written by America's leading philosophers (where you Martha Nussbaum?) but there's quite a lot happening in Europe.  In Sweden philosophers have helped design the ethical protocols for triaging care.  While a great debate has been stirred in Italy about the response to the virus taken there.  The European Journal of Pscyhoanalysis invited some leading thinker to respond to what Michel Foucault had previously written about the rise of the disciplinary state in the midst of plague.  You can read there contributions here.  Giorgio Agamben has, in particular, generated much controversy and response with what he has written about it.  Here is his latest.  And an Arendtian response to these European thinkers that I wish were longer can be found here.  A different perspective from a quarantined Italian philosopher is shared here.  Slavoj Zizek seems to have taken very different positions, here in an early writing and here in a more recent oneHis most controversial claim is that he thinks the crisis will result in a return to communism.

Altar

I think our worship live stream yesterday went reasonably well.  As of this morning we've had 370 views.  Yesterday we also had Zoom Sunday School and will be rolling out some other digital services this week.

Sebastian and I continue our study of the planets.  Yesterday we papier mached two balloons for the model solar system we are building.  Sebastian didn't want to touch the paste and was ready for a break after two.  I think when these (Neptune and Saturn) dry, we'll paint them so he can see finished product.  

Papier mache planets

He really enjoys his new book The Girl Who Named Pluto and has requested that we read it every night.  So this morning for our school time we watched a video about the New Horizons mission to the dwarf planet.  That occurred in 2015 when he was a newborn.  At the time the mission thrilled me--the idea that we as a species had the ability to design a spaceship that would travel that far and send back pictures, the reality that Pluto was so beautiful and sat there unobserved until that moment, the ideas that we as a species are capable of great things and that the universe is filled with beauty.  At the time I talked often to newborn Sebastian about the mission and showed him the photos NASA released.  His high chair became the "rocket chair" and as we traveled from the kitchen to the dining room we'd pass the various (newly named by humans) features of the planet such as the Sputnik Planum and the Norgay Montes.  Watching the video together this morning brought back all those lovely memories and helped my mood.

I recommend this article that I read yesterday entitled "Against Productivity in a Pandemic."


Good eulogy for Sir Roger Scruton

The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton died earlier this year.  I hadn't yet read a good eulogy for him, but this one in the NYTimes, that I had previously missed does a fine job of explaining what kind of conservative he was.  An excerpt:

Moreover, he recognized that the most important things people build, even more important than the cathedrals and great works of art and music he so loved, are not primarily the result of planning. They develop organically over time, with trial and error, as the work of many hands (an example is the common law of England). Recognizing this, conservatives should, he argued, seek to protect these things against those who would tear them down out of a misguided zeal for what they saw as the demands of liberty, equality, social justice or even the free market.

The conservative can cheer moderate reforms (organic things do grow and therefore change), but the conservative’s fundamental goal is to conserve. That spirit, by the way, made Roger an ardent, but old-fashioned and therefore moderate, conservationist — a kind of Green Tory who believed responsible stewardship of the natural order crucial. He thought that good stewardship begins with regard for the local landscape and architecture.


A couple of philosophical responses

Finally had some time this morning to catch up on philosophical reading.  Among the philosophers responding to COVID-19, I thought these two article were interesting..

This one is somewhat predictable--Peter Singer encouraging ending forever "wet markets" like the one that passed this disease (and others to humans). Read his arguments here.

And this article by Alex Broadbent lays out the various principles and ideas involved in a rational, cost-benefit analysis of the virus and responses to it.  Most interesting are these two considerations (two of a handful he includes):

Identification of losers and winners, and weighing of their rights. Older people and those with pulmonary conditions are at greater risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19 infection. The protection of these groups must be weighed against the good of the whole. Closing schools, for example, will surely reduce rates of infection; but it may harm the children’s education, to which they arguably have an important right, for the probable benefit of their grandparents. Such trade-offs are generally considered permissible, as in taxation to pay for a public service, but not unrestrictedly so. I am not commenting on any particular measure here; school closure is merely an example and may in fact benefit children significantly. I am merely trying to structure the cost-benefit analysis by pointing out that those who suffer most from the measures may not always be those who benefit the most, and their respective rights and interests must be weighed.

 Assessment of quantity of life. Delicate though it may be, the public health response needs to take seriously the extent to which those who die are sick and elderly. This is not because their lives matter less, intrinsically. It is because they have less life left. We may imagine that if COVID-19 had not killed someone this week, they would have died of some other ailment next week, or even on the same day. Such imaginary cases are the subject of study by philosophers who think about causation, but in this case they have an evaluative import. Life is a quantity rather than a binary variable, and disease reduces its quantity, both for individuals and populations. The quantity of this reduction is less for people who are going to die sooner: the sick and elderly, in other words. If the cost of a disease to a population is the quantity of life that it takes, then this can only be measured in time, because all life is a quantity of time.

Some of us have more life left than others. Thus the cost of COVID-19 to population health is not simply a function of how many it kills, but whom. This is surely not the only factor in assessing the cost of a disease or benefit of a public health measure, but, given that life comes in a finite quantity, the quantitative effect must be taken into account in assessing the benefit offered by a public health measure against the cost of the disease.

 


A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge

Principles, Dialogues and Philosophical CorrespondencePrinciples, Dialogues and Philosophical Correspondence by George Berkeley
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

In 2016, while on a family trip to Ireland, we spent a couple of days in Kilkenny and our hotel was Berkeley House. The good bishop had gone to school in Kilkenny, so knowing he had some connection to the city, I asked the clerk if this was the house that Bishop George Berkeley the philosopher had lived in? She stared at me blankly and said she didn't know. Sigh.

In 2014, while at the Yale Writer's Conference, conference attendees all stayed in in Berkeley College, definitely named after the bishop. Annoying, Yalies mispronounce the name as if it is "Burk-ley" instead of "Bark-ley."

For some time now I've been reading back through the philosophical canon, including texts I last read in grad school a quarter of a century ago, such as this one, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.

I liked the Introduction, which I didn't remember being so strong. It is a criticism of abstract ideas with good discussions of how language works. Here he anticipates William James's pragmatism, Alfred North Whitehead's fallacy of misplaced concreteness, and some aspects of Analytic Philosophy. An example, "Whereas, in truth, there is no such thing as one precise and definite signification annexed to any general name, they all signifying indifferently a great number of particular ideas." A good rebuke to, among others, Socrates and his attempts to get THE definition of various concepts.

But after the Introduction, as Berkeley argues for Idealism--the philosophy that only ideas exist--I just found him much harder to take than I did when I first read it. And since I don't have to read it for a class or comps, I was able to quickly skim through, re-reading some texts I had liked before (such as a paragraph on the difficulty of understanding time that I quoted in my dissertation) but otherwise finding his arguments and claims rather bad.

So, interestingly, my recent re-reading of Leibniz elevated him in my appreciation and Berkeley drops in my estimation.

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Arendt quotes

Some quotes I highlighted while reading The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt:

  • To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence.
  • A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.
  • The human condition is such that pain and effort are not just symptoms which can be removed without changing life itself; they are rather the modes in which life itself, together with the necessity to which it is bound, makes itself felt.  For mortals, the "easy life of the gods" would be a lifeless life.
  • It is as though worldly stability had become transparent in the permanence of art, so that a premonition of immortality, not the immortality of the soul or of life but of something immortal achieved by mortal hands, has become tangibly present, to shine and to be seen, to sound and to be heard, to speak and to be read.
  • What gives the story of Achilles its paradigmatic significance is that it shows in a nutshell that eudaimonia can be bought only at the price of life and that one can make sure of it only by foregoing the continuity of living in which we disclose ourselves piecemeal, by summing up all of one's life in a single deed, so that the story of the act comes to its end together with life itself.
  • The organization of the polis . . . is a kind of organized remembrance.
  • Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.
  • The art of politics teaches men how to bring forth what is great and radiant . . . as long as the polis is there to inspire men to dare the extraordinary, all things are safe; if it perishes, everything is lost.
  • Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.
  • [Philosophy], wherever it is authentic, possesses the same permanence and durability as art works.
  • It is quite conceivable that the modern age--which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity--may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known.

The Human Condition

The Human ConditionThe Human Condition by Hannah Arendt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brilliant. Odd and unique but brilliant.

When I was in grad school Arendt wasn't treated as a necessary part of the canon. It's only been in the last decade that I've read her. And her reputation seems to be growing.

At the beginning she states as her goal to reconsider "the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears" with the aim of getting us "to think what we are doing."

What follows is a careful review of the philosophical tradition and what can be learned about it to help us better understand human life and what we have arrived at in the contemporary era. Near the end she reveals her fears that we are headed to an time of tranquilized passivity but hopes that at least some people will think about what's happening and reorganize our political life.

There isn't a clear political program here, but a desire for humanity to better understand itself in order to then reimagine our political arrangements for our contemporary age.

And unlike some of the reviews, I found it a quick and easy read. Her arguments build slowly and carefully.

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Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, & the Origin of Evil

Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man & the Origin of EvilTheodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man & the Origin of Evil by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First an explanation of what it means to "read" 500 pages of old philosophical prose--you skim through sections looking for the good, engaging material, the new idea, the argument you really want to focus on. You don't always painstakingly read every word.

For a while I was overwhelmed by the thoroughness of this book, so unlike Leibniz's Discourse and Monadology which are short and succinct. But eventually I grew deep admiration for Leibniz.

For one, he may have been one of the most well-read intellectuals ever. The sheer breadth and diversity of figures he sites is incredible, some of them now minor or forgotten folk (like his detailed discussion of the supralapsarian theologians). This contrasts with what I read about Descartes last year in a biography, that he didn't like reading other people's books.

Also, Leibniz will spend pages and pages trying to fully grasp another authors arguments, sometimes presenting it in a better light than the author themselves did, before then refuting it with objections.

So, a monumental intellectual achievement . . . but I still disagree with him about most of his conclusions. I am not persuaded that this is the best of all possible worlds, that pre-established harmony is the solution to the mind-body problem, and more.

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