Philosophy Feed

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.


Thomas Reid: Inquiry & Essays

Inquiry and EssaysInquiry and Essays by Thomas Reid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read Thomas Reid in preparation for my general exams and then completed this collection when I was done with the major work on my dissertation and reading philosophy not related to it. Now I returned to it as my now almost decade long project of reading back through the philosophical canon chronologically. I had forgotten how clearly, concisely, and with such common sense he responds to, or even takes down, key theories in modern philosophy. I felt the same about Reid that I did two decades ago, that many of his ideas are more fully developed in later thinkers, including the American Pragmatists. He remains one of those secondary figures in our tradition, but worth reacquainting myself with him.

One funny reading experience--finding myself laughing outloud at a good joke he made, only to turn to the back of the book and see that twenty years ago I had indexed that page as "a good joke." I guess it made me laugh out loud both times. Here's the joke: "It seemed very natural to think, that the 'Treatise of Human Nature required an author, and a very ingenious one too; but now we learn that it is only a set of ideas which came together and arranged themselves by certain associations and attractions." Yeah, only philosophers are going to cackle to that.

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Philosophy in the Islamic World

A History of Philosophy without any Gaps, Volume 3: Philosophy in the Islamic WorldA History of Philosophy without any Gaps, Volume 3: Philosophy in the Islamic World by Peter Adamson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a thorough book. Not only is there good, serious treatment of all the major figures, there were so many thinkers he covered which I had never heard of before. And some of whom I now want to read in the primary sources.

The book is in three sections, all of which could have been their own books. The first is philosophy in the Islamic world in the formative period from al-Kindi up through Ibn Sina and Al-Ghazali. The second section covers the unique context of philosophy in Andalusia with significant treatment of Jewish thinkers from Moorish Spain. Of course this tradition blended into the late Medieval Latin Christian philosophical traditions, but didn't have as much influence on the Islamic philosophies in the East. The final section covers mostly eastern Islam after Ibn Sina up to the 21st century, defending the claim that there was still vibrant philosophy underway which has been largely ignored by the European tradition.

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Reason for Being

Reason for Being: A Meditation on EcclesiastesReason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes by Jacques Ellul
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"In the midst of a crisis, a person finds himself undetermined in such a way that his freedom can function."

Ellul the humanist explores this most philosophical of biblical books finding in it important messages for twentieth century human life. Here is a good summary of some main points:

"But the first step in wisdom consists of recognizing wisdom's vanity, acknowledging its limitations. We must live, work, and find joy within this understanding to which Qohelet invites us: no wisdom can enlighten us, or enable us to organize things so as to understand the world and history. No wisdom can establish a scale of moral values . . . . True, no wisdom or meaning exists; all the same, we will live; all the same, we will act; all the same, we will be capable of happiness and hope. The only true wisdom we can aspire to consists of the perception that no wisdom is possible. On that basis we must construct our lives, beginning at that negative point."

There is much to commend itself in this book, particularly in the midst of our current global crisis. But I thought the book could have used some serious editing. A more concise presentation of its points would have been a better read.

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The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World

The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided WorldThe Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World by Michael Ignatieff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish I could rush into an ethics classroom and teach this book. It is excellent. I devoured it quickly.

Ignatieff, both an academic and political leader, explores the impact that human rights have had upon the globe, shaping the moral order. A key idea of the book is that over the last fifty years we have improved morally as a species, with the advances in human rights, humanitarian responses to suffering, and environmentalism.

He sets out to various global hotspots to explore the current global moral order--Queens, LA, Rio, Bosnia, Myanmar, Fukushima, and South Africa. In these places he dialogues with poor women living in shanties and prominent public officials. He is a sympathetic and compassionate listener who draws keen philosophical insights from what he observes. A brilliant model for how to do academic work in our time.

What he discovers is that there are a few key aspects of ordinary virtue that humans seem to share. Trust, tolerance, and resilience are among them. And key to promoting these virtues are well run public institutions and civil society. Ordinary virtue becomes almost impossible in a broken, violent, corrupt society. He writes, "The whole point of a liberal society is to create laws and institutions that make virtue ordinary."

The most brilliant chapter is that on Fukushima, and I would recommend it as reading right now in our moment of global pandemic. He writes that the triple disaster in Japan--earthquake, tsunami, meltdown--was the unimaginable and that we moderns are not well prepared for the unimaginable to happen. Yet, the unimaginable has consistently been occurring the last twenty years eroding our trust in our institutions which keep failing us and eroding our ability to plan for and hope for our futures. He writes, "Instead of embracing the future, imagining radiant tomorrows, we now think of the future in the language of harm reduction, target hardening, and risk management." This breakdown has made humans more individualistic in their resilience strategies.

Here is the final paragraph of that brilliant chapter, where he discusses hope:

The hope I am talking about is an ordinary virtue: it is free of hubris, and so it takes for granted, that we will not always be able to avoid the worst. At the same time, it is not misanthropic: it prepares for the worst but does not think the worst of human beings. It is anti-utopian: while it believes that over time we get better at learning from our mistakes, it does not have any faith that we can fundamentally change; it is rationalist but questions that History, with a capital H, is knowable. It draws faith from the past, from the memory of the samurai, but it also knows that sometimes all you can do is to keep moving, keep going toward the future, no matter how uncertain the destination. But resilience has an unshakeable, physical element of faith. It affirms that we do learn and that we are not condemned to endless repetition of our folly. This complex hope is, I believe, what underpins human resilience, more than an attitude of responsibility toward others. It is also a metaphysical commitment, deep inside, usually left unspoken, to the future continuity of human life itself, no matter what, a commitment best expressed by the belief that we will not only survive but prevail.

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The City and Man

The City and ManThe City and Man by Leo Strauss
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A congregant who was a retired political science professor died last year and because he and I had engaged in various philosophical discussions over the years, I was able to select some books from his library. He was a student of Strauss, so there were a handful of Strauss' books to choose from.

This volume is made up of three long essays--one on Aristotle's Politics, one on Plato's Republic, and one on Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. In each essay there are some interesting insights, but overall I found Strauss to be a most infelicitous writer. The final essay was by far the best and the most interesting, making me want to read Thucydides in full (I've only ever read excerpts).

An overarching theme seems to be doing what is practical and realistic in politics.

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