Philosophy Feed

Knowing What To Do

Knowing What to Do: Imagination, Virtue, and Platonism in EthicsKnowing What to Do: Imagination, Virtue, and Platonism in Ethics by Timothy Chappell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, I must correct a Goodreads error, for they have this book's author listed under her former and incorrect name. The author is Sophie Grace Chappell.

I heard Chappell lecture at Creighton University here in Omaha a few years ago and put this book on my "list" to read because I was impressed by her creative thinking.

I had wondered if this is a book I might use as a text in teaching Ethics. I think not, as it is more technical in places than my sophomores would enjoy, but the book will definitely shape how I approach teaching ethics.

Chappell criticizes all the dominate ethical theories for getting ethics wrong, primarily by trying to be THE way of living the good life. She rather thinks that the major theories give good, but not final and conclusive advice, some working better in certain situations than others.

What she instead advocates is a cultivation of the moral imagination which is accomplished through contemplation. In this view she draws upon Plato and Iris Murdoch.

Chappell has a rich undertanding of philosophical history and contemporary debates, including drawing on important aspects of other philosophical fields such as philosophy of mind.

A number of the chapters are necessary but technical contributions to recent arguments in analytical philosophy. I hope she will in the future write a book that more fully develops her positive ideas from the latter half of the book.

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A Thousand Small Sanities

A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of LiberalismA Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism by Adam Gopnik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gopnik offers a robust defense of the liberal worldview as the great human moral adventure. He writes, "Whenever we look at how the big problems got solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities. A thousand small sanities are usually wiser than one big idea."

Liberalism he defines as "an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate." He admits this is an unwiedly description, but that's how liberalism works. It cannot be easily contained within slogans and catchphrases.

Liberalism emerges out of humanism, and Gopnik argues that humanism continues to come before liberalism. The movement begins with Montaigne's critical self-examination and willing to try out new ideas. It develops through modern efforts to eliminate cruelty.

What Gopnik does is not present simply the ideas of major thinkers, but he describes the lives of various figures, with John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill as his paradigm examples. For he believes that liberalism is a way of life more than a set of ideas and that we learn about it by learning about the lives shaped by it.

I found the ideas he advances to be Mill as filtered through Karl Popper and updated by Richard Rorty. This despite Popper rarely appearing explicitly in the book (though his defenses of the open society and scientific thinking do) and Rorty is only mentioned once in the bibliography (though his spirit and themes are throughout the book).

Gopnik refines his presentation of liberalism by contrasting it with both the Right and the Left. In each case, he looks for the best examples of each (Charles DeGaulle and Emma Goldman) instead of arguing against straw persons. And he shows how liberalism has learned from both movements and also contributed to them.

I very much appreciated the chapter contrasting liberalism with the Left, as it helps to clarify tensions I have felt professionally and personally in recent years as different approaches to Trumpism and other issues have emerged. In this chapter he tackles many current topics including free speech, religious tolerance, pronouns, etc.

Note: Gopnik argues that Liberalism is NOT centrism, which is its own movement. A chapter contrasting the two would have been helpful. It is interesting to note that David Brooks's column from last week mentioned this book and is why I ordered and read it.

Overall, I recommend it. Now, what I'd like is for Amy Kittelstrom to moderate a discussion over liberalism with Gopnik and Marilynne Robinson (her recent article in the NY Review of Books sets up an alternative view of liberalism's origins) and then for the responder to be Wendell Berry.

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Robinson on Puritanism & Liberalism

Speaking of Liberalism, a fine essay by Marilynne Robinson defending the liberal history of Puritanism, along the way pointing out the illiberalism of the Lockian tradition.  

In a fun aside, she mentions that interpretation of Walt Whitman should begin with an understanding of Puritan theology.

The closing paragraph is fine; here are the final two:

Our heavily redacted history has meant the loss of many options. The idea of a good community, one whose members are happy in the fact of a general well-being, is not native to us, natural to us, possible for us—or so we are to believe. It is too far left. It is downright socialist. Hugh Peter [a Puritan divine] speaks in terms of practical enhancements, crowned roads to help prevent flooding, for example. He proposes that all advocates and attorneys should be paid by the public, that no one should be above the law. He proposes that artists and craftsmen of modest income should not be taxed. There is nothing sectarian in his list of reforms, assuming that most of us would be pleased to have improved infrastructure, equal justice before the law, a creative environment that acknowledges the social value of art.

We know our penal system is unfair and inhumane, that our treatment of immigrants threatens the ideal of a just nation. Why are we paralyzed in the face of these issues of freedom and humanity? Why are we alienated from a history that could help us find a deep root in liberality and shared and mutual happiness? Those who control the word “American” control the sense of the possible. Our public is far more liberal than our politics. Our politics must change if there is to be any future for representative democracy.

 


The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity

The Lies That Bind: Rethinking IdentityThe Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good and helpful summary of the way identities work, and thereby a useful contribution to many current social debates. In particular his discussion on class is very good.

And here is an important excerpt from the conclusion:

"There is a liberal fantasy in which identities are merely chosen, so we are all free to be what we choose to be. But identities without demands would be useless to us. Identities work only because, once they get their grip on us, they command us, speaking to us as an inner voice; and because others, seeing who they think we are, call on us, too. If you do not care for the shapes your identities have taken, you cannot simply refuse them; they are not yours alone. You have to work with others inside and outside the labeled group in order to reframe them so they fit you better; and you can do that collective work only if you recognize that the results must serve others as well."

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The Influence of Donald Wester: Part Two

On May 9th of this year I sent the following e-mail to Donald Wester, Junior about his dad:

Donald,

I'm grading final exams from Intro to Philosophy. One student wrote about how he's long struggled with proving the existence of God and that he was very disappointed with the day we spent on the traditional arguments. But then we read William James and he discovered that we don't need to prove God's existence.

Reading the essay made me think of your Dad, from whom I learned that. Now 27 years later I'm passing those lessons on.

Which also reminds me I brought up your Dad in worship planning yesterday when Stephen and I got off on a discussion of Nietzsche's criticisms of Christianity. I mentioned how your Dad taught me to interpret Nietzsche, that basically the criticisms have some validity and any thoughtful person of faith needs a response that survives the criticisms.

Anyway, thought you might appreciate these stories.

Peace,
Scott

Don Wester, Sr. for decades taught a class entitled "Fundamentals of Philosophy."  It was a sophomore level course required of all religion and ministry majors, the only other philosophy class they were required to take beyond Intro.  It was something of a rite of passage, which means many experienced it as a stumbling block.  The course was part of the genius of OBU's curriculum at the time--before all these young (mostly) men were turned loose on the church, they had to spend a semester with Don Wester.

Wester's textbook for that course was simply the Library of America volume of William James's philosophical writings--Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, Essays in Radical Empiricism, the Varieties of Religious Experience.  William James is not a conservative evangelical, so his works were a definite challenge for most of the students in the course.  Many struggled with it.  I know because I was also Wester's grader for three years, which didn't give me a lot of confidence in the future of pastoral ministry. :)

Which gets me to Don Wester's intellectual project.  

As Don told the story, he was a rural pastor who decided to become a foreign missionary--the plan was to go to Indonesia.  He was smart enough to realize that much of the Christianity he knew was deeply Western, influenced by Greco-Roman thought forms.  He didn't think Indonesians should have to first accept the legacy of Greco-Roman thought before becoming Christians, so he realized he needed to figure out what Christianity was more basically, freed of Greco-Roman philosophy.  Or to put it more simply, Christianity without Plato.

This is a more challenging project than you might realize.

Wester never did end up on the mission field, but the intellectual project remained.  And it is one he passed on to his students.  The intensive study of William James was part of this.  I absorbed his love of James (in my Intro class we read Pragmatism).  I adopted his overall understanding of the history of philosophy and its relationship with Christianity.  I too wanted to understand the history of ideas so that I might know where certain ideas came from and what effects they had had.  The framework I learned from him still shapes how I think about new ideas and how I teach them to my students. 

One implication of this intellectual project is how we think about God.  Wester rejected the notions of omnipotence, omniscience, and impassibility, as they were inherited from the Greeks (Parmenides really) and not the Hebrews.  Being persuaded by Wester on these points opened me to Whitehead's Process Thought, for he too rejects these concepts and conceives of God differently.  

When I took Fundamentals of Philosophy, my final paper was entitled "William James's Concept of God."  Wester marked the title as being wrong and then explained why to me.  James doesn't think we have a concept of God, but a perception, an experience.  He let me rewrite the paper.

Sunday I preached a sermon which explored the myriad ways one could interpret the Letter of Jude.  The sermon was written before Don Wester died, but I dedicated the sermon to his memory, for he taught me to explore truth in this way.

How does one measure the gift of an intellectual worldview?  Especially when his teaching helped me to keep my faith by seeing things in a new light?  


The Influence of Donald Wester: Part One

I didn't understand what he was saying, but I was fascinated anyway.

Something like that was my first impression of Professor Donald Wester in 1992.  I was an eighteen-year-old kid from small town Oklahoma, a conservative Southern Baptist filled with all the eagerness, naivete, curiosity, and confidence of a college freshman.  I was a member of Oklahoma Baptist University's inaugural Honors Class and that semester they decided to offer Freshman English and Intro to Philosophy as one co-taught class with Joe Hall and Don Wester.  I don't think the combined class worked all that well as a matter of curriculum, for they never did it again, but the gods of academia could have made no better selection than to introduce us to a combined Drs. Hall and Wester.  I was never the same, and that could probably be said for everyone else in the room (for instance, that was when I first read Wendell Berry).

My prior acquaintance with philosophy was three-fold.  Most had come by way of high school debate, where you needed to be familiar with Mill's utilitarianism, Kant's categorical imperative, and the basics of Social Contract theory (e. g. one semester in high school John Locke's views on self-defense had been rather central to formulating our response to a question).  The second high school exposure was in my World Lit & Humanities class where we read about about Socrates.  And finally in Mr. Harvey's chemistry classes we had received an introduction to pre-Socratic cosmological theories.  So, I didn't come to Wester's class with no philosophical training, but it wasn't my chosen academic field, rather something I was curious about.

But as I said at the beginning, I didn't really understand what Don Wester was saying most of the time, but I was still fascinated.  And that largely remained the case.  I think that was also part of his magic as a teacher.  The students who fell in love with him worked their butts off with the hopes that they would finally be able to understand him.  By then you had been seduced into the discipline.

That fall semester of 1992 Don Wester turned me into a philosopher.  I had soon declared philosophy as my minor (I was a Religion major with an emphasis in Biblical Studies who ultimately did a double major).  

Samuel Enoch Stumpf's Philosophy History and Problems was the textbook, which I still have and maybe surprisingly still refer to in teaching my own intro to philosophy course.  We covered all the big names and major ideas in a rather comprehensive course that laid the groundwork for my future academic development.  In particular that semester, I was introduced to Alfred North Whitehead, whose ideas intrigued me.  Little did I know then that I would write a dissertation on Whitehead.

And so that one semester with Don Wester was a turning point that has helped to shape my subsequent life in myriad ways.

In the next post, I'll write about how I inherited Wester's intellectual project. 


Buffy & the Academy

A fun article in the Atlantic on why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is beloved of academics.

Back in the mid-Aughts I was invited to write an essay for a volume on the philosophy of Buffy which was being edited by a friend of mine.  I was going to write an essay on the concept of God revealed in the show, more on that in a moment.  But I ended up backing out not feeling I had the time to devote to the essay by the deadline in order to prepare something of the quality I would want to publish. 

I do regret that decision, by the way.  Which made reading this article a little melancholy.

In the final season there was so much talk about the "First Evil," I kept wondering when I first watched it if there was going to be a "First Good."  Maybe even a literal deus ex machina to close the series.  At the time I figured the show would end one of two ways--if Joss Whedon was fundamentally a pessimist or nihilist, then Buffy would be killed and the First Evil would conquer the world, or if Whedon was fundamentally optimistic then Evil would be defeated maybe with this appearance of the First Good.  

Of course the finale was not as final as I had hoped, which initially disappointed me.  In retrospect, however, I came to realize that the finale had in fact revealed the God concept of the show when Buffy's power is shared among all the potential slayers.  It's idea of the First Good was a immanent power, particularly a female power.  

But I never did the good work of more fully developing this interpretation.


Descartes: A Biography

Descartes: A BiographyDescartes: A Biography by Desmond M. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very thorough biography that did help me better understand Descartes, which will hopefully bear fruit in my teaching. The downside of this book is that it spends a great deal of time in minute details of Descartes' movements and correspondence where a less detailed but more thematic (and shorter) overview would have been sufficient for my needs. But some thorough bio like this does need to exist.

The most surprising discovery for me was the speculation on Descartes' sexual orientation. The gay community can grasp onto the slightest rumors to consider whether some prominent historical person was gay or bi, but I had never heard Descartes mentioned. But Clarke's speculation, always very sober, was persuasively of at least the possibility.

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The Self

Today as I was driving back from Fremont, Nebraska, where I delivered cleaning supplies donated by our church members for flood relief, I was listening to the TED Radio Hour and its discussion of time.  This segment on the self with Dan Gilbert was very interesting, especially as it resonates with a view of the self promulgated by philosopher David Hume which I teach in intro.  I think I'll use this excerpt from now on when explaining that idea.

The NPR website's description of the segment should spark your interest:

Psychologist Dan Gilbert shares research on what he calls the "end of history illusion," where we think the person we are right now is the person we'll be for the rest of time. Hint: that's not the case.