Social practice in an expanded field: against art historical noodling and for Sunday morning doodling

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/31/2016



…But I remain interested in social practice to the degree that it remains social practice, rather than social practice *art*. So when we inquire into the aesthetics of participation for instance we don’t get bogged down in all the art historical noodling that paralyzes so many critics from the old school. It is important to emphasize that all kinds of “problems” are solved by recognizing that art [frieze/e-flux/triple canopy type art], is just a highly specialized and mostly pointless parlor game played with, and within, aesthetic experience. If we remain attuned to aesthetics and aesthetic experience (especially from an embodied, phenomenological point of view) or to “the arts” or “the art of” or “the artful” rather than to Art, we increase the chances of having the “dynamic, complex and difficult dialogues” *** seeks rather than the insular professional tiffs of the Art world.


a wholly incomplete fishbone through which art must pass on its way to becoming social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/31/2015


on the necessary and sufficient conditions for becoming a lebenskünstler

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/31/2015


an adaptation (or what those theory folks call a détournement) of a food web map to illustrate recent and persistent bodymind activity

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/30/2015


This *actual* world – an antidote for academic philosophy (Chapter 3 – Chapter 5)

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/26/2015

Philosophy & This Actual World – Martin Benjamin

“Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts – Charles S. Peirce

In an illuminating metaphor, social scientist Otto Neurath compares humans as knowers to “sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials.” We acquire our capacity for critical reflection against the backdrop of a complex network of beliefs and claims to knowledge. Some elements of the network were acquired from our families, others from church, neighborhood, school, books, televisions, and so on; still others have their origins in personal experience. This network of knowledge and belief is our ship, the vessel on which we navigate the occasionally hazardous, ever-changing, only partially charted sea of life. The “ship of knowledge” is not, however, as seaworthy as we would like it to be…It needs repair and rebuilding, but we can’t do it all at once and from the bottom up. We are, after all, on the open sea…As the mariner must use and stand on some parts of the ship while examining, repairing, and improving others, we must rely on some (fallible) parts of our network of knowledge and belief while doubting, testing, and revising other parts

…As Wittgenstein also puts it, “the same proposition may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing.”

…the locus of certainty is the *actions* of embodied social agents, *not the intellect* of a (possibly) lone, disembodied spectator. Certainty turns out to be practical or pragmatic rather than propositional or intellectual…

…you know from experience there’s a big difference between the world and your ideas of it. To anyone but a certain kind of academic philosopher, it goes without saying.

…What should be puzzling here [in radical epistemological skepticism] is not the lack of proof, but the *request* for one…

…We employ a wide variety of different language games or vocabularies in making our way in the world and there is…nothing to be gained and much to be lost by choosing *once and for all* between them.

…”[quoting Richard Gregory] The question need not be whether reality is material or spiritual; it can be, what follows from talking about reality one way or the other? What do we gain, and what price do we pay, for adopting one vocabulary and giving up the other?

…We keep away from fire, raise the thermostat on the furnace, lower the volume on the stereo, comfort a frightened child, commiserate with the bereaved, condemn torture, and so on. As *pragmatic* certainties, these anticipations of and responses to subjective experience are not part of a fallible theory or system of knowledge. Our certainty that we and others experience pain is not propositional – not the outcome of a conclusive chain of reasoning…that we and others can experience pain *goes without saying.* We cannot really doubt whether we and practically all other human beings are capable of certain mental states because these and related states are among the *hinges* on which language – and hence doubt and inquiry – turn.

…We should drink deeply of science, but not to the point of intoxication…*Leading* a life requires the personal perspective of an agent – tempered and informed, to be sure, by the scientific or impersonal standpoint – but not fully replaced by it…If, however, you think of yourself as *one of us* – an embodied social agent *in* the world as well as a spectator *of* it – you will see the implausibility of such replacement.

If there were a contest for the best one-sentence definition of philosophy, it would be hard to beat Wilfrid Sellars’s characterization of philosophy as an attempt to “understand how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term.”

…If forced to choose between a practically incapacitating, but simple and intellectually satisfying extreme, on the one hand, and a practically empowering, but complex and intellectually disconcerting accommodation, on the other, the pragmatic temperament favors the latter.

Søren Kierkegaard, in a passage paraphrased by [William] James, writes, “It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it mus be lived forwards.”

Instead of a single, abstract, theoretical free will problem to be solved in one fell swoop, we are faced with a large number of free will problems – problems requiring complex, context-dependent, ambivalent choice between the vocabularies of freedom and determinism.

[quoting Mary Midgley] Getting right outside morality would be rather like getting outside the atmosphere. It would mean losing the basic social network within which we live and communicate with others, including all those others in the past who have formed our culture. If we can imagine this deprived state at all, it would be a solitary condition close to that of autism or extreme depression – a state where, although intelligence can still function, there is no sense of community with others, no shared wishes, principles, aspirations or ideals, no mutual trust or fellowship with those outside, no preferred set of concepts, nothing agreed on as important.

[quoting Kai Nielsen] Instead we weave and unweave the fabric of our beliefs until we get, for a time, though only for a time, the most consistent and coherent package which best squares with everything we reasonably believe we know and to which we, on reflection, are most firmly committed. There are some extensively fixed points, points which we *may* always in fact obtain anywhere, anywhen, but they are still, logically speaking, provisional fixed points which are not, in theory at least, beyond question, if they turn out not to fit with the web of our beliefs and reflective commitments, commitments which will not be extinguished when we take them to heart under conditions of undistorted discourse.

[quoting William James] There is no such thing possible as an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance…In other words, there can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man [sic] has had his say.”…The method also responds to what [John] Dewey characterized as the “deepest problem of modern life,” namely, “restoring integration and cooperation between man’s [sic] beliefs about the world in which he lives and his beliefs about the values and purposes that should direct his conduct. It is the problem of any philosophy that is not isolated from that life.

This *actual* world – an antidote for academic philosophy (Preface – Chapter 2)

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/20/2015

Philosophy & This Actual World – Martin Benjamin

In 1907 William James spoke of the “seriously inquiring amateur in philosophy” who turns to philosophy professors but finds them wanting. The problem is not with the serious amateur, James explained, but the professors. Philosophy should do more than exercise our “powers of intellectual abstraction.” It should also “make some positive connexion with this actual world of finite human lives.”

*Embodied social action* is at least as important to philosophical inquiry and understanding, James and Wittgenstein each insist, as *abstract thought or contemplation.*

At one point James put it this way: “The knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foot-hold anywhere, and passively reflecting on an order that he comes upon and simply finds existing. The knower is an *actor*, and coefficient of the truth which he helps to create. Mental interests, hypotheses, postulates, so far as they are bases for *human action – action* which to a great extent transforms the world – help make the truth.” Nearly seventy years later Wittgenstein wrote, ” Giving grounds, however justifying the evidence, comes to and end; – but the end is not certain propositions’ striking us immediately as true; i.e. it is not a kind of *seeing* on our part; it is our *acting*, which lies at the bottom of the language game.” …[James and Wittgenstein share a]*pragmatic temperament* – one that speaks to the whole person, embodied social agent as well as intellect.

For too long academic philosophers have ignored the questions of serious, intelligent, well-educated men and women from all walks of life who do not have time for concentrated study in philosophy.

…Peirce criticized radical skepticism and the idea that we acquire knowledge of the world as individuals rather than as members of communities.

…A pragmatic temperament, however, acknowledges that *genuine* philosophical questions are not a matter of intellect alone. They are raised by the whole person and involve both the street…and the classroom. Action without thought, to adapt a phrase from Kant, is *blind*; thought without action is *empty*. If our minds cannot simultaneously occupy the worlds of the street and the classroom when we’re doing philosophy, they must at least enact a dialogue between them. Philosophical questions worth asking must be responsive to the demands of both, as must our answers of them.

…we who raise genuine questions about knowledge, reality, mind, will, and ethics are not, first and foremost, isolated, disembodied Cartesian observers *of* the world, but rather embodied social agents *in* it.

Pragmatic considerations are inseparable from certain social *practices* – and practices are themselves constituted by patterns of (embodied) human action…correct language use…presupposes membership in a community of embodied, language-using agents.

One reason “so few human beings truly care for philosophy,” William James observed, is its “monstrous abridgment of things, which like all abridgments is got by the absolute loss and casting out of real matter.” The “real matter” to which James refers includes the wide variety of rich and concrete realities that comprise our daily lives. Abstract ethical theories, for example, cannot capture the various complexities of everyday moral decision making. “The entire man [or woman], who feels needs by turns,” James points out, “will take nothing as an equivalent for life but the fullness of living itself.”

…Successful navigation in life, as on the sea, requires knowing when and how to tack between viewpoints. Those who remain utterly blind to a more objective or detached picture of their betrothed or lovers are ill-advised to make long-standing personal commitments to them;

“That is well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our garden.”…

To cultivate a garden is not to accept everything that happens as for the best. Weeds, disease, and drought are part of nature, but to a gardener these things are things to be reduced or eliminated. What Candide *does* in cultivating his garden (where cultivating a garden is a metaphor for doing our best to improve the conditions of our earthly lives) is in some respects a more powerful and eloquent “refutation” of Pangloss’s doctrine than anything he could at this point *say*. Deeds, not words, are the most fitting response. Pangloss’s abstract generalizations are simply beside the point; they don’t matter, do any work, or make any “connexion to this actual world of finite human lives.” For Candide it is no longer worth trying to refute Pangloss on his own terms; he has better things to *do*.

After a point, it seems to me, our response to radical skeptics ought to resemble Candide’s response to Pangloss. Even if we cannot refute them to *their* satisfaction, the fact that their doctrine makes “no positive connexion to this actual world of finite human lives” may be sufficient to relegate it to the margins of contemporary philosophy (though *not* to the margins of the *history* of philosophy, where it remains of the greatest importance). As embodied social agents we have a number of more interesting and important philosophical questions to address than those posed by the radical skeptic. Like Candide, then, let’s not worry too much about matters that make no difference to the way we (must) lead our lives. There are more fertile fields that need cultivating. And we’ll never get to them unless we can turn our backs on radical skepticism.

Wittgenstein devised “language game” to emphasize the connection between saying, doing, and rule-following…Language is “woven” into (we might better say “interwoven with”) the nonlinguistic actions of language users rather than superimposed on them…thinking and saying are not only inseparable from doing, but they are also kinds of doing. “Words.” as Wittgenstein puts it, “are also deeds.”

The moral of the story then, is that we do not have to identify the essence or specify necessary and sufficient conditions for words…[that notion] is based on a mistaken preconception about language – one that fails to take account of how language is actually used by embodied social agents like ourselves.

…Meaning cannot, therefore, generally be abstracted from the social practices or rule-governed patterns of behavior into which the use of words is woven…

To reject the possibility of a “master theory” of truth – one that provides a method for systematically distinguishing any and all true beliefs from those that are false – does not, however, mean we cannot distinguish truth from falsity…there is no super-duper method, prior to and independent of, these linguistic activities, that will allow one to magisterially pronounce on the truth of various claims made within them. It is the different language games themselves – their more or less complex and interrelated rules, practices, conventions, purposes, standards of judgment, and so on – that provide the ground rules or criteria we use in determining truth or falsity within them.

…The main point, for present purposes, is that (1) questions of truth and falsity cannot be separated from our language games (or vocabularies); (2) our language games (or vocabularies) cannot be separated from our actions; (3) our actions cannot be separated from our various aims and interests; and (4) these aims and interests are those of embodied social agents.

…Language use in not something in addition to (or superimposed on) most distinctly human activities, including complex thought; rather it is constitutive of them. Meaning is not a product of private ostensive definition or linguistic essences; rather it is a function of the way words are used fro certain purposes in certain language games. And truth is not determined by *directly* comparing what we say about the world with what the world is like itself; rather it is a property of either (a) individual beliefs or sentences that together with certain events or states of the world satisfy the rules internal to a particular (useful or justifiable) language game or vocabulary or (b) entire language games that, given their purposes and their comparative advantages over competing language games, are more useful or justifiable than any practical alternative.

In pursuit of meaning – eudaimonia expanded

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/17/2015

Happiness, and all that crap – Clive Hamilton

The pleasant life, or life of pleasure, is one motivated by hedonism – the desire to maximise the number of emotional and physical “highs”. This is the signature of modern consumer capitalism. Within constraints, it is possible to learn the skills necessary to foster the pleasant life, including techniques for amassing income, giving greater access to hedonistic pursuits. Although self-centered, for people committed to the pleasant life the focus of activity is always outwards – looking to the external world to provide sources of satisfaction. Status seeking through career success, for example, can be counted as a feature of the pleasant life because of its emphasis on external reward.

The second approach is the good life. It can be thought of as a life devoted to developing and refining one’s capabilities and thereby fulfilling one’s potential, an orientation adopted by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen in their work on development and wellbeing. Whereas the pleasant life borrows from the future in order to enjoy the present, the good life invests in the present in order to augment the future. Among the characteristics of the good life are purposeful engagement, positive self-regard, high-quality relationships, environmental mastery and continued personal growth.

Aristotle argued that each of us has a daemon, or spirit, and that the purpose of life is to discover and honour it, so the “good life” approach is close to the idea of eudaimonism. The contrast between the pleasant life and the good life reflects the ancient dispute between the Epicureans and the Stoics, and there is now a body of psychological research supporting the distinction. The former is an intensely subjective idea of wellbeing explored through notions of positive affect (or emotion). It is easily, but not very reliably, measured by surveys of subjective wellbeing.

The meaningful life, the third approach to living, is similar to the good life insofar as it may require the development of one’s “signature strengths”. But whereas the pursuit of the good life can be self-focused – the athlete or musician perfecting their skills through years of training and achieving “flow” – the meaningful life entails a commitment to something greater than oneself, a higher cause. Those committed to a meaningful life are not, in fact, committed to their own lives, but to social improvement, or to living in a register that transcends the personal.

For those who pursue the meaningful life, the boundary between the self and the other is permeable. The meaningful life corresponds to what the philosophers of the past understood to be the pursuit of virtue, or selfless moral principles.

David Granger’s “John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living” – Chapter Six

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/13/2014

What is more, each of us inherits and is partially constituted by a number of sociocultural scripts authored by those who came before us. As roles to be acted out in everyday life, these at times conflicting scripts – for example, of daughter, sister, mother, lover, wife, woman, teacher – can be exceedingly difficult and painful to rewrite, especially for those persons (like “Phaedrus”) who have been relegated to the margins…As even Dewey fails to acknowledge sufficiently, they inevitably constrain the possibilities of personal renewal in very significant and consequential ways.

…Thus begins the process of education between a text-as-friend and the reader wherein the text (as the reader’s unattained but attainable self) calls the reader to his next self.

[note 18]…[Dewey] “poetry teaches as friends and life teach, by being, and not by express intent.”

Like the figure of the poet-as-midwife in romanticism, the text-as-friend strives to arrange a conversational rather than authoritarian scene of instruction. It invites the reader to find that distinctive path to self-realization that the linguistic community he shares with others makes possible for him…we are all educators for ourselves as well as for one another, We are all partial representations of some greater common-wealth.

…in synthesizing human activity through flexible adaptation to the environment, the body’s natural structuring agencies are highly subject to the sense-making structures of the culture it inherits; which is to say that culture, with its complex symbol systems, ideals, values, beliefs, and customs has its roots in the lived body. And as Michel Foucault forcefully reminds us, this makes it a malleable site for inscribing social power.

Whether we like it or not, the body is considerably more than a shadowing “giant” whose agencies can be substantially divorced from the art of living wisely and well. The habitual body, the primary medium of meaning in Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism, is prefigured in every mode of human behavior and expression, including linguistic activity. It conditions and is conditioned by our ability to negotiate successfully and act intelligently within all kinds of cultural space, those of work as well as of leisure. To fail to recognize this is to suppose the body to be little more than the intractable vessel of our mental life. To fail to acknowledge it is inevitably to impede the cause of personal renewal.

What kinds of environments and activities are most likely to expand the self and its capacity to find an make meaning in the world?

…In its configuration as a tentative but relatively stable organic unity of many and diverse habits, the poetically fashioned self achieves a balanced movement of energies and impulses. Yet at the same time it also eschews the prospect of any final endstate or absolute perfection. In going forth to meet new situations that present new demands, each stage in its growth becomes as much a stimulating disturbance toward the new as an achieved ordering of the old. The poetic self is, in this sense, both medial and media.

What is more, the poetic structure contributes to the self’s ability to negotiate everyday experience in a meaningful and satisfying way. The breadth and vitality of the poetic self’s working capacities make it especially well equipped to receive, respond to, and integrate imaginatively the meaning-enhancing possibilities of the present moment. Its capacious array of habits provides increased opportunities for finding and creating meaning in the world. In addition, the poetic self has the ability to solve problems in ways that maximize self-growth, establishing new avenues for richly funded experience. But more than that- and I want to underscore this point – it will sense as problematic situations that would otheriswe seem in good order. That is, it will experience some degree of disequilibrium where others likely will not. Vague discordances – such as Pirsig’s increasing awareness of “Phaedrus’s” ghostly presence or his intimation of a slight misfire in his bike – can more easily be detected and brought to consciousness by the poetic self. Its world is one of multiple and intersecting horizons of meaning, ever pregnant with freshly emerging problems and possibilities.

…The other-directed dimension of Emersonian perfectionism is oriented toward self-reliance through our shared linguistic resources. But Dewey’s poetics look to harmonize regard for the self and its internal others with flesh and blood other(s) in the world. The end-in-view of Deweyan dramatic rehearsal incorporates the environing community with its immediate deliberative horizon – looking in to the self and out to the world are not discrete activities, but elements of one continuous process. This means that the questions “Who am I?” and “Who am I to become?” do not arise independent of the question “How should I treat others?” In addition, we have seen that self-perfection through linguistic activity, while indeed a valuable means of personal renewal, can never be an adequate substitute for more overt democratic praxis. We greatly risk falling into a debased perfectionism if we do not remain alert to the fact that undertaking dialogue with internalized others does not guarantee our being answerable for this dialogue in concrete activities of public life. Yet Dewey stresses that it is through such praxis that we best come to understand that we inhabit the world meaningfully only with and through one another.

1. art as experience makes possible the reconstruction of habits (and hence the self) in ways that significantly alter and enhance the potential meaning and value of things;
2. art as experience, in contributing to a poetics of the body, improves both the aesthetic quality and use-value of somatic activity, in addition to the physical culture of our everyday environment;
3. as a form of deliberation or “dramatic rehearsal,” art as experience utilizes the agencies of aesthetic discrimination and poetic creation, conceiving, in imagination, hitherto unrecognized possibilities for thought and action;
4. the procedures of “dramatic rehearsal” assume a narrative structure that helps reveal the shortcomings of our habits of deliberation, furnishing a valuable kind of self-knowledge;
5. the poetic self resulting from artistic engagement in diverse contexts acquires a broad array of habits that presents increased opportunities for finding and creating meaning in the world;
6. the many and diverse habits of this poetic self foster a heightened ability to engage with and liberate the meaning-making capacities of others.

David Granger’s “John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living” – Chapter Five

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/10/2014

…To “unweave a rainbow” and treat its components as ontologically superior is, within Dewey’s and Pirsig’s metaphysics to commit *the* philosophical fallacy.

[Martha Nussbaum] Philosophy has often seen itself as a way of transcending the merely human, of giving the human being a new and more godlike set of activities and attachments. [An] alternative…sees it as a way of being human and speaking humanly. That suggestion will appeal only to those who actually want to be human, who see in human life as it is, with its surprises and connections, its pains and sudden joys, a story worth embracing. This in no way means not wishing to make life better than it is. But…there are ways of transcending that are human and “internal” and other ways that involve flight and repudiation.

…If human inquiry is conceived as a natural event- something that goes on in nature – there is not ontological division between self and world in which the skeptic can open a radical cleft of some kind.

…a nonskeptical attitude necessitates that we relinquish the idea that our primary relation to the world is one of knowing or not knowing. The world’s contingent presentness to us, the way it is disclosed to us…is not principally a matter of knowing. Rather, it is a function of those immediate meanings emerging from our shared forms of life…”attunements” or “alignments” – and the intrinsic significance that people and things come to possess over time through the part they play in various life activities.

philosophy is much more a discourse about culture, about the funded meanings of everyday life, than about knowledge per se…these thinkers [Emerson, Dewey, Pirsig, etc.] all perceive the emptiness or even danger of continuing to wrestle with the problems of epistemology, and so they work to undermine the attenuated (skeptical) picture of human experience that helped give birth to, and in some quarters continues to nourish, the convention of asking questions about foundations and certainty. In other words, they do not so much evade what Dewey calls “the industry of epistemology” as attempt to undercut “the claims of its questions.”

Marriage, for Wordsworth, is foremost a way of being in the world. It entails a continuous (re) affirmation and (re) acknowledgement of the conditions of our humanity, something more pervasive and primordial than a scripted rule – or precept-bound relationship. This marriage is not so much an event (like a wedding ceremony) as an attitude toward events – an attitude of care, mindfulness, fallibility, and adventure. And here we can detect strong resonances with Dewey’s and Pirsig’s accounts of artistic engagement…resonances suggesting that aesthetic or high-quality experience is a prominent and recurring feature of this Wordsworthian marriage. It represents the possibility of an ever renewable intimacy with an infinitely meaningful environment, a revitalizing devotion to the everyday. With it, Dewey says, we shed our indifference to the qualitative uniqueness of things. We begin to crack the shell of mundaneness that often accrues around everyday objects so as to “share vividly and deeply in meanings to which we have become dumb.” Such experience also calls attention to the fact that this marriage requires emotional as well as intellectual responsiveness ( a “feeling intellect), and therein it reminds us of the skeptical withdrawal or torpor that can very easily make us feel as though we are not at home in the commonplace world.

…”Ultimately there are but two philosophies,” Dewey concludes, “One of them accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities – to imagination and art”. In short, it takes the limits and liabilities of the human condition and turns them into poetic affirmations. The other philosophy is that of the Cavellian [Stanley Cavell] skeptic.

If this journey is to consist of more than observing, redescribing, and mapping from a distance, it must be an adventure in living no less than thinking, and a personally challenging one at that.

…Thoreau, however, understands reading (as well as writing) as the demanding process of engaging with the complex energies and movements of language.

…Thus do we see the Emersonian poet-philosopher alluding to great scholars, writers, and artists. But they are to be taken more as inspirational progenitors than models to be imitated. Their creations are to be appropriated and put to work, used to expand our present and future horizons of meaning rather than passively assimilated. “Around every circle another can be drawn,” runs the Emersonian credo.

Dewey holds that unimpeded participation in social activities, shared interests, and open communication are the basic ingredients of democratic life, More than that, they are inherently educative. Common, community, and communication are inseparable in his view. A critical-creative culture, along with supporting institutions – educational institutions chief among them – are crucial to obtaining and safeguarding those goods amidst the precarious struggle for a meaningful existence. Taken together they share the responsibility of nourishing and sustaining the conditions necessary for cultivating ***the art of experience*** – the principal measure, as I have suggested, of Deweyan democracy. This means that it is the frutiful practice of democracy in the everyday that Dewey holds most dear, not a specific set of institutions or political arrangements. Deomcracy, he says repeatedly, is something continually to strive for, a never-ending experiment in associated living rather than a static achievement or legacy to be bequeathed. As such it requires strong, educated, imaginative individuals. [Democracy as a way of life – Art as a way of life]

Dewey’s conception of individuality differs frome Emerson’s and Pirsig’s in that it rejects *in principle* the prospect of individuality without sociality…He claims that individuality can only be actualized through a sustained period of overt participation in social life, whether in the form of active approval or disapproval. This means that Emrson’s so-called original unit is really a product of years of varied association. As Dewey argues in Individualism, Old and New:

moving and multiple associations are the only means by which the possibilities of individuality can be realized..To gain an integrated individuality, each of us needs to cultivate his own garden. But there is no fence about this garden: it is no sharply marked-off enclosure. Our garden is the world, in the angle at which it touches our own manner of being. By accepting the…world in which we live, and by thus fulfilling the pre-condition for interaction with it, we, who are also parts of the moving present, create ourselves as we create an unknown future.

***1. art as experience holds out the possibility of an ever renewable intimacy with an infinitely meaningful lived world;
2. the creative impetus of art as experience imbues the things of everyday life with enhanced meaning and value;***

3. in cracking the shell of mundaneness that often accrues around the things of everyday, art an the aesthetic reconnect us with those objects and people that we have come to take for granted, renewing our appreciation for their significance in our lives;
4. the feeling intellect of art as experience allows us to turn the limits and liabilities of the human condition into poetic affirmations;
5. art as experience helps us to explore the creative possibilities of our inheritance in culture, developing new ends and goods (or values) of our own design;
6. in utilizing a both/and logic, art as experience overrides inherited dualistic patterns of thinking, acknowledging the reality of irony and paradox, the contingency and fluidity of boundaries, and the possibility of alternative – though not always valuable perspectives;
7. the general prospects for art as experience provide a measure of attainment of democratic forms of life.

David Granger’s “John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living” – Chapter Four

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/09/2014

…Moreover, we must recognize that poetic quality “exists in many degrees and forms”. In an effort to drive these points home, Dewey takes the time in Art as Experience to quote verbatim an actual weather report…Dewey freely admits that almost no one would call these lines actual poetry. Yet without modifying it in any way, he presents a bit or ordinary prose as “something poetic” found in an “unexpected place”.

…shared life and experience is for him the great miracle of human existence. The democratic attitude is the religious attitude; democratic values are religious values…The substantial emancipation of the religious from religion, he firmly believes, is the only way to heal this destructive and unnecessary chasm between “the live creature and ethereal things”…

to emancipate the aesthetic, as an adjective, from the artworld’s acquisitive treatment of art as a noun substantive. Both the aesthetic and the religious are to be interpreted as qualities of a larger experience, latent in any number of situational contexts.

****…For all of these figures [Wordsworth, Emerson, Dewey, Pirsig] the aesthetic and the religious are variations of a common theme – the ideal of life as the realization of the poetic possibilities of everyday experience.****

…Dewey locates imagination not in the mind or some other part of our intellectual equipment, but rather in the dramatic field of self-world interaction. Imagination is a way of being oriented toward things, seeing and feeling them, as they constitute a unified whole…[imagination is not an individual possession] it is a phase of natural events capable of extracting from existing conditions unrealized possibilities for meaning.

Aesthetic experience for Dewey, culminates not so much in vertical movement – transcendence to a higher level of being through a tighter and more comprehensive unity. It is instead better described as horizontal – a movement outward toward an ever-expanding horizon of meaning and value.

Aesthetic experience emerges with the aid of intelligence from the manifold rhythms of everyday life, wherein all things pass ineluctably in and out of existence. This is the sine qua non of Deweyean pragmatic naturalism. There is no hidden and self-identical “higher” reality to be unmasked, no permanent haven for which to strive; there is only the body and mind working together in and through the natural and sociocultural environment to create and recreate meaning.

…A metaphysics that increases our understanding of the possible relationships between our sociocultural practices and the various traits of the lived world is, from this perspective, indispensable to philosophy as criticism.

1. both aesthetic and religious experience are latent in any number of situational contexts, and not exclusive and autonomous things-in-themselves;
2. the aesthetic and religious, taken together, manifest the ideal of life as the realization of poetic possibilities of everyday experience;
3. expressive (or aesthetic) meaning is wholly inseparable from its conditioning medium – there can be no such thing as “impulsive expression”;
4. all forms of expression are ultimately as much a function of the body as of the mind;
5. the self or its emotions are not what art expresses, but rather the sensed meaning arising from purposeful interaction of self and world;
6. the goal of interpreting an art object is not simply to “get it” by reading the artist’s mind – there is considerably more meaning to be gleaned from openly exploring the expressive potentialities f the object and its medium;
7. the aesthetic imagination is fundamentally intentional rather than free floating or disinterested;
8. imagination is not a discrete faculty or power, but rather a whole contextual orientation toward things capable of disclosing alternatives to present conditions;
9. art does not reveal the essence of things or achieve higher levels of being – it is a means of expanding one’s everyday horizon of meaning;
10. a unified experience should act as much as “a stimulating disturbance toward the new as an achieved ordering of the old” – to strive for a perfectly harmonious, inclusive unity is inevitably to stifle growth and possibility.

David Granger’s “John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living” – Chapter Three

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/08/2014

…The more the meaning of an experience is carried through its immediate qualitative dimension, Dewey argues, the more conspicuous the limits of language become.

this separation of art from the objects and events of everyday life have very profound, and often very pernicious, consequences.

[footnote 4] Aesthetic attitude theories maintain that a person must be essentially unconcerned with the practical utility of an object if this object is to be experienced aesthetically or as art. [<—note distinction between the two!] In short, they view instrumental and intrinsic meaning as inherently opposed. Commentators on Art as Experience tend to overstate the extent to which Dewey accepts this idea.

"Tangled scenes of life are made more intelligible in esthetic experience: not, however, as reflection and science render things more intelligible by reduction to conceptual form, but by presenting their meanings as the matter of a clarified, coherent, and intensified or ‘impassioned’ experience“. This is one of many statements of Dewey’s belief that in human life knowledge is largely subordinate to the direct qualitative meaning of things. As a matter of tracing out existential relations, its value lies primarily outside itself, in some external end. The intelligibility that it provides is meaning “for” rather than directly “of,” we might say. Nonetheless, the desire to treat art as if it were a mode of knowing or an embodiment of the “truth of things” has long been a prominent theme within Euro-American aesthetics.

Thus conceived, art is eminently practical; it is about refreshing and enhancing everyday lived experience, not escaping to the pristine sublimity of theoretical abstraction or disinterested beauty

…the aesthetic suffers immeasurably when cognitive meanings are granted a monopoly in experience.”

…Add to this the idea that art is a mode of practice, he [Dewey] continues, and “the only distinction worth drawing is not between practice and theory, but between those modes of practice that are not intelligent, not inherently and immediately enjoyable, and those which are full of enjoyed meanings“.

…[Richard] Shusterman contends that Dewey’s use of “aesthetic experience” can help us to remember that qualitatively enriched experience, and not national/class privilege or the collecting of precious objects, is what makes art an incomparable source of personal and cultural renewal…The more we learn, and then teach others, how to fashion life itself into art, as Dewey says, the less we will feel the need to treat art as “the beauty parlor of civilization”.

What then is artworld art? As the term is used here, it refers to art that is largely created to respond, either positively or negatively, to the particular concerns, values, and practices of those institutionally enfranchised persons who constitute the artworld. This means that its audience and presumed context of interpretation are more or less predetermined.

They tend to promote the creation of reflexive art-about-art, art that demands that its audience be familiar with the specialized and routinely abstract discourse(s) circulating within the artworld

…Treated in this autonomous fashion, the artworld is effectively removed from any wider normative context from which its values and practices might be critiqued and reconstructed…That which is not accepted by the artworld as a candidate for appreciation is unceremoniously dismissed from the “family,” enabling the possiility for art to become “increasingly alien to the lives and joys of most people.” [<–Shusterman] With this we can imagine Dewey, a tireless proponent of shared experiences and practices, being greatly disturbed. His guiding concern is to direct us toward more and better aesthetic experiences, not legislating as to what is and what is not a “genuine” art object.

It is crucial for Dewey that the parameters of art be neither definitively marked off within the aesthetic dimension of lived experience nor limited to certain prescribed institutional or cultural contexts.

Dewey and Pirsig would, I think, join someone like Wittgenstein in having us question whether we ever can or need formulate any such conditions (especially outside academe). [necessary and sufficient conditions for what constitutes art]

“The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged. The difference between such a worker and the inept careless bungler is as great in the shop as it is in the studio.” [Dewey]

Unlike the dualistic posture of the disinterested spectator, this mindful, “feeling intellext” is invested emotionally in its affairs, like a mechanic who is “caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection”. There is a fullness of participation and sense of purpose that is, again, receptive without being passive. What is undergone is experienced in all its fecundity.

Then we are led to ask not only “Does it work?: of a given technology, but also, “What kind of experience does it afford?”

1. aesthetic experience is a human achievement involving intelligent thought and action – it is not a spontaneous, unguarded event;
2. aesthetic experience, qua aesthetic, is an enrichment of the immediacy of experience in which knowledge plays a chiefly instrumental role – it is neither a mode of knowing nor an embodiment of the “truth of things”;
3. aesthetic experience is marked by its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency and is composed of an organic unity of interdependent parts;
4. aesthetic experience is not predominantly mentalistic, but is instead rooted in the biophysical rhythms of the lived body;
5. a mindful “feeling intellect,” rather than a restrained posture of disinterestedness, facilitates the cultivation of aesthetic experience;
6. any distinction between the aesthetic merits and use-value of things is ultimately a relative one in experience – the two are not inherently opposed;
7. experiences involving some degree of pain, loss, or even the conventionally “ugly” can have palpable aesthetic quality insofar as they heighten our appreciation of the intrinsic meaning and value of those things that make up our everyday lifeworld;
8. art objects are frequently a potent and ready source of aesthetic experience, but not the sole or even principal medium of the aesthetic;
9. the arts can be of deep moral significance inasmuch as they help to reeducate and enhance our habits of perception.

David Granger’s “John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living” – Chapter Two

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/06/2014

…[Pirsig] His treatment of Quality became essentially naturalistic…Quality no longer originated in some pristine transcendent reality, but rather in the dynamic and ineffable existential immediacy of the everyday lived world.

…But philosophy as cultural criticism, as a form of applied intelligence, is a no less formidable and momentous undertaking. Among other things, it calls for passion, courage, and imaginative vision if it is to be truly forward looking, a prophetic conviction in the possibility of achieving a “heightened appreciation of the positive goods which human experience has achieved and offers”[Dewey]. Moreover, it insists on a highly receptive and generous mind, one capable of considerable humility and a keen fallibilist sensibility…

…What is more, an unprejudiced mind must acknowledge that any activity, from constructing a piece of furniture in shop class to discussing the literary merits of Crime and Punishment, can potentially become “saturated” with meaning, very often, diverse kinds of meaning, instrumental as well as terminal. As Dewey sees it, then, values must be esteemed in terms of what particular situational contexts call for and make possible as far as growth and meaning enhancement are concerned.

1. all theories presuppose the larger world that must serve as “their ground, their origin, their material, and their true end”;
2. real human progress is possible, but, given the existence of chance, contingency, and luck, not inevitable;
3. there is not, and never can be, an a priori genuine path we are to follow in life as inhabitants of an unfinished world – the ends of nature infinitely varied and variable;
4. “all modes of experiencing[scientific, aesthetic,, religious, moral] are ways in which some genuine traits of nature come to manifest realization”;
5. values are the products of experience and inquiry, and constitute a vital strand in the fabric of the full lived situation – they are not mere psychic entities;
6. facts and values are interrelated existences and cannot ultimately be pulled apart – there is no such thing as pure, value-free inquiry;
7. ideas must be tested in the crucible of lived experience if they are to affirm their worth;
8. human beings must work to understand, acknowledge, and respect the conditions of their existence if they are to live wisely and well;
9. the purpose of philosophy is broad-based cultural values criticism, to “clarify, liberate, and extend the goods which inhere in the naturally generated functions of experience.”

David Granger’s “John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living” – Chapter One

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/03/2014

…The thoughtful reconstruction of experience, which shapes and guides it toward desirable ends through intelligent action in the world, is thus perceived as the quintessential human project.

…They [poets] have urged us to recognize that directly”had” or felt meanings manifest the genuine traits of things no less effectually than does cognitive experience.

…all experienced qualities are ultimately a function of situational wholes…

…[Pirsig]”One seeks instead the highest quality intellectual explanation of things with the knowledge that if the past is any guide to the future this explanation must be taken provisionally; as useful until something better comes along.” Dewey would eventually term this fallibist conception of truth “warranted assertability.”

1. the everyday human world is the proper ground and point of reference for philosophy;
2. the world is preeminently qualitative in character, and immediate sense qualities are what we live in and for;
3. the world is marked by a regenerative mixture of flux and stability (or the dynamic and the static), and along with other “generic traits” including continuity (or association), novelty, pluralism, potentiality, contingency, and temporality;
4. all existences, material and ideational, are best viewed as events rather than substances;
5. every existential event is theoretically capable of an infinite number of possible meanings, including aesthetic meanings;
6. the conventional dualisms of subject and object, mind and body, and reason and emotions are functional distinctions ensuing from reflection – not a priori existences;
7. “situations,” the immediately experienced wholes or constellations of meaning within which we think, feel, and act, constitute the basic human lifeworld;
8. experience originates in the continuous interaction of an active, purposive organism with its environment;
9. our chief mode of interacting with the world is through the body, and the body is the primary medium of meaning in experience;
10. experience is not composed of discrete bits of sense data, but rather “the sun, earth, plants and animals of everyday life,” which is where inquiry must ultimately both begin and end;
11. human thought is “a natural event occurring in nature because of the traits of the latter” – it is not an imposition from without;
12. meaning in experience can be immediately “had” or felt as well as known – knowing or cognizing is but one mode of experience;
13. knowledge is inherently anticipatory and inferential in nature, denoting the ability to reconstruct a given situation in a desired way – the idea of certain knowledge beheld as an immediate presence by a detached spectator is sheer fantasy;
14. truth is born of ideas verified in experience and is always provisional, open to change in light of future inquiries.

David Granger’s “John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living” – Introduction

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/02/2014

…In learning to conduct more of everyday experience in an artful manner, we increase our ability to liberate and expand the potential meaning of things…

…As a creative transformation of our everyday lifeworld, this experience [aesthetic for Dewey, high-quality for Pirsig], they argue, provides the means and media for an everyday poetics of living.

[Martha] Nussbaum takes from all of this that the structural form of philosophy – its use of language, method, exposition and argument, and so on – is organically connected with – and actively conditions – its content. Style itself, that is, makes certain claims about the world and about what matters in life. This leads Nussbaum to conclude that “there may be some views of the world and how one should live in it – views, especially, that emphasize the world’s surprising variety, its complexity and mysteriousness, its flawed and imperfect beauty – that cannot be fully and adequately stated in language of conventional philosophical prose, a style remarkably flat and lacking in wonder – but only in a language and in forms that are themselves more complex, more allusive, more attentive to particulars.”…

…that vital link to future possibility necessary to sustain the poetics of personal and cultural renewal – what Dewey conceives of principally in terms of imagination (“the chief instrument of the good”) – is in danger of being svered by interpretive practices that, whether purposely or not, tend to blunt our sense of the ineffable mystery and wonder of the lived world by rendering everything either readily explainable or of no significant value…”

…each theory [analytic and Continental] discounts the possibility that literary texts refer in some way to concrete human readers (and therein to the world), readers who are not ontologically weightless abstractions, but who have practical interests and needs that often change and grow significantly through their encounters with literature…

…the proper aim of philosophy is not the creation of a logical system of thought, but rather the enhancement of the quality of life and experience through conscientious cultural or value criticism…Immaculately reasoned arguments and grand systems mean little if they have nothing to contribute to the art of a life well lived.

“…passion as the basis of a life well lived.” – The last curator strangled with the guts of the last gallerist? – Against the moderate Enlightenment

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/12/2013

A Dangerous Man in the Pantheon – Philipp Blom

But things aren’t quite as easy. First of all, Diderot has been denied this honour multiple times, most recently in 1913. He was, still is, thought of as an intellectual troublemaker, someone all too fond of Eros and erotic passion, an implacable enemy of the Church, an incorrigible skeptic when it comes to power and the right of individuals to decide over others. These difficulties could perhaps be overcome in our tolerant and republican age. After all Voltaire, who has preceded him in the sacred site of French national memory, was also not a friend of the Church.

Condemned by the Church and hated by the Court, d’Holbach and Diderot were beacons of free thinking and directly inspired the America’s Founding Fathers. Franklin is likely to have participated at the dinners and ensuing discussions; Jefferson, whose personal library still testifies to his interests, read and admired Diderot, d’Holbach, Helvétius, and Raynal, as well as their intellectual predecessors. For the Declaration of Independence, he transformed the Lockean formulation for the pursuit of life, health, liberty, and property into the more properly Epicurean and Diderotean “pursuit of Happiness.”

Diderot saw the truest and the highest goal of human nature not in reason, but in lust. Humanity’s existence is driven by Eros, by the search for pleasure. This sensualist approach had an important metaphysical consequence: in a world without sin, a world in which no wrathful God has condemned all lust and demands suffering from his creatures on this earth in order to soften the blow of eternal punishment, the goal of life becomes the best possible realization of pleasure, the education of desire in accordance with natural laws. In a society without transcendental interference, this chance, the chance of the pursuit of happiness, must be given to all.

These views were anathema to just about everyone who sought to maintain or gain power, from the aristocracy to Revolutionary dictators such as Maximilien de Robespierre and Napoleon, all the way up to the Catholic Restoration that followed. “Men will not be free until the last king is strangled with the guts of the last priest,” wrote Diderot—not the kind of message to appeal to the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. Laissez-faire capitalism allowed a self-proclaimed Christian middle class to profit from the misery of the working poor, at home and in the colonies. They could not argue for their position with Diderot, who became ever more scathing about the justification of power, privilege, slavery, and colonial expansion. It was Voltaire’s moderate Enlightenment that offered them the necessary vocabulary and allowed them to see themselves as the guardians of civilization, Enlightenment and religious values, put above the ignorant masses by divine providence.

The radical Enlighteners had understood and condemned this emergent power structure, as a ‘conspiracy of priests and magistrates’. Their thought was evolutionist long before Charles Darwin; they defended the rights of slaves before William Wilberforce and of women before Mary Wollstonecraft. They wanted to see individual fulfillment in a morality built around lust and social justice in a society built on pleasure and free choice, not on pain and oppression. Their potent ideas were unsurprisingly intoxicating discoveries for latter-day revolutionaries; among d’Holbach and Diderot’s ardent readers were Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.

The grand narrative of a rationalist Enlightenment that freed humanity from superstition only to subjugate it once again, this time to the dictates of reason and rationalization, suited the interests and self-image of an economy driven by entrepreneurship and fuelled by a cult of efficiency and cheap labor. Our own time dominated by the fiction of the market that needs to be obeyed and placated like an ancient deity and a society optimized for maximum consumption are a direct consequence of the Enlightenment cult of reason without the Diderotian emphasis on empathy. We have inherited the truncated history and repeated it to one another, tacitly encouraging a narrowness of thought that bears little resemblance to one of the freewheeling exchanges over candlelight at d’Holbach’s salon. The existence of a second, more radical Enlightenment tradition is not denied completely, but two centuries of historical bias have done their work, slowly but surely.

But while his role in this magnificent mammoth work was important for the eighteenth century, it is Diderot the philosopher who can still speak to us today. His advocacy of a passionate life, of social solidarity and empathy as the foundations of morality, his interest in science as the basis of all knowledge and in art and Eros as ways of creating meaning have lost nothing of their freshness, or their necessity. The real potential of the Enlightenment, he says time and again, is not the absolute rule of reason, but the rehabilitation of passion as the basis of a life well lived.

“Philosophy should be conversation, not dogma – face-to-face talk about our place in the cosmos and how we should live”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/07/2013

Talk with me – Nigel Warburton

Western philosophy has its origins in conversation, in face-to-face discussions about reality, our place in the cosmos, and how we should live. It began with a sense of mystery, wonder, and confusion, and the powerful desire to get beyond mere appearances to find truth or, if not that, at least some kind of wisdom or balance.

Socrates started the conversation about philosophical conversation. This shabby eccentric who wandered the marketplace in fifth-century Athens accosting passersby and cross-questioning them in his celebrated style set the pattern for philosophical discussion and teaching. His pupil Plato crafted eloquent Socratic dialogues that, we assume, capture something of what it was like to be harangued and goaded by his mentor, though perhaps they’re more of a ventriloquist act. Socrates himself, if we believe Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, had no great respect for the written word. He argued that it was inferior to the spoken. A page of writing might seem intelligent, but whatever question you ask of it, it responds in precisely the same way each time you read it — as this sentence will, no matter how many times you return to it.

Besides, why would a thinker cast seeds on barren soil? Surely it is better to sow then where they’re likely to grow, to share your ideas in the way most suited to the audience, to adapt what you say to whoever is in front of you. Wittgenstein made a similar point in his notebooks when he wrote: ‘Telling someone something he will not understand is pointless, even if you add he will not understand it.’ The inflections of speech allowed Socrates to exercise his famous irony, to lay emphasis, to tease, cajole, and play, all of which is liable to be misunderstood on the page. A philosopher might jot down a few notes as a reminder of passing thoughts, Socrates suggested, but, for philosophical communication, conversation was king.

New technology is changing the landscape in which philosophical conversations — and arguably all conversations – take place. It has allowed contemporary philosophers to reach global audiences with their ideas, and to take philosophy beyond the lecture halls. But there is more to this ‘spoken philosophy’ than simply the words uttered, and the ideas discussed. Audible non-verbal aspects of the interaction, such as hearing the smile in someone’s voice, a moment of impatience, a pause (of doubt perhaps?), or insight — these factors humanise philosophy. They make it impossible to think of it as just a mechanical application of rigorous logic, and reveal something about the thinker as well as the position taken. Enthusiasm expressed through the voice can be contagious and inspirational.

However, it was John Stuart Mill who crystallised the importance of having your ideas challenged through engagement with others who disagree with you. In the second chapter of On Liberty (1859), he argued for the immense value of dissenting voices. It is the dissenters who force us to think, who challenge received opinion, who nudge us away from dead dogma to beliefs that have survived critical challenge, the best that we can hope for. Dissenters are of great value even when they are largely or even totally mistaken in their beliefs. As he put it: ‘Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field.’

Whenever philosophical education lapses into learning facts about history and texts, regurgitating an instructor’s views, or learning from a textbook, it moves away from its Socratic roots in conversation. Then it becomes so much the worse for philosophy and for the students on the receiving end of what the radical educationalist Paolo Freire referred to pejoratively in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) as the ‘banking’ of knowledge. The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society. As Plato’s Socrates tells us, ‘These are not trivial questions we are discussing here, we are discussing how to live.’

“No one understands the human heart at all…” – The barbarism of reason

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/05/2013

The barbarism of reason – John Gray

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) has been remembered as a poet who produced delicate verse inspired by a melancholy version of Romanticism, along with some sharp epigrams on the discontents that go with civilisation. This was always a crude view of the early- 19th-century Italian writer. Leopardi’s subtle sensibility eludes conventional intellectual categories and the true achievement of this subversive genius has been little recognised.

With astonishing prescience, he diagnosed the sickness of our time: a dangerous intoxication with the knowledge and power given by science, mixed with an inability to accept the humanly meaningless world that science has revealed. Faced with emptiness, modern humanity has taken refuge in schemes of world improvement, which all too often – as in the savage revolutions of the 20th century and the no less savage humanitarian warfare of the 21st – involve mass slaughter. The irrationalities of earlier times have been replaced by what Leopardi calls “the barbarism of reason”.

…An anthropologist of modernity, Leopardi stood outside the beliefs of the modern age. He could never take seriously the faith in progress: the notion that civilisation gradually improves over time. He knew that civilisations come and go and that some are better than others – but they are not stations on a long march to a better world. “Modern civilisation must not be considered simply as a continuation of ancient civilisation, as its progression . . . These two civilisations, which are essentially different, are and must be considered as two separate civilisations.”

His sympathies lay with the ancients, whose way of life he believed was more conducive to human happiness. A product of the increase of knowledge, the modern world is driven by the pursuit of truth; yet this passion for truth, Leopardi suggests, is a by-product of Christianity. Before Christianity disrupted and destroyed the ancient pagan cults with its universal claims, human beings were able to rest content with their local practices and illusions. “Mankind was happier before Christianity than after it,” he writes.

What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness. Matthew Arnold, A E Housman, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Fernando Pessoa (who wrote a poem about the Italian poet) and Samuel Beckett were all stirred by his suggestion that human fulfilment requires a tolerance of illusion that is at odds with both Christianity and modern science. A version of the same thought informs the work of Wallace Stevens, perhaps the greatest 20th-century English-language poet, who saw the task of poetry as being the creation of fictions by which human beings can live.

Leopardi was emphatic in affirming the constancy of human nature and the existence of goods and evils that are universally human. He was far from being a moral relativist. What he rejected was the modern conceit that aims to turn these often conflicting values into a system of universal principles – a project that fails to comprehend the irresolvable contradictions of human needs. “No one understands the human heart at all,” he wrote, “who does not understand how vast is its capacity for illusions, even when these are contrary to its interests, or how often it loves the very thing that is obviously harmful to it.” Modern rationalists imagine they do not succumb to this quintessentially human need for illusion, but in reality they display it to the full.

…The barbarism of reason is the attempt to order the world on a more rational model. However, evangelists for reason are more driven by faith than they know and the result of attempting to impose their simpleminded designs on the world has been to add greatly to the evils to which human life is naturally prone.

Some will find Leopardi unsatisfying because he proposes no remedy for modern ills, but for me a part of his charm comes from how he has no gospel to sell. The Romantic movement turned to visions of natural harmony as an escape from the flaws of civilisation. With his more penetrating intelligence, Leopardi understood that because human beings are spawned by natural processes, their civilisations share the ramshackle disorder of the natural world. Brought up by his father to be a good Catholic, he became a resolute atheist who admired ancient pagan religion; but because it was not possible to return to the more benign faiths of ancient times, he was friendly to Christianity in his own day, seeing it as the lesser of many evils: “Religion (far more favoured and approved by nature than by reason) is all we have to shore up the wretched and tottering edifice of present-day human life.”

Realising that the human mind can decay even as human knowledge advances, Leopardi would not have been surprised by the stupefying banality and shallowness of current debates on belief and unbelief. He accepted that there is no remedy for the ignorance of those who imagine themselves to be embodiments of reason. Today’s evangelical rationalists lag far behind the understanding of the human world that he achieved in the early decades of the 19th century.

The art of self-fashioning – “Take care of yourself, attend to yourself.” – Crafting disposition

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/15/2013

Self-Fashioning in Society and Solitude – Nannerl O. Keohane

Self-fashioning is part of the age-old purpose of higher education, particularly in the liberal arts and sciences. The key point is to be aware, sometimes, that this is happening—to deliberately engage in fashioning—not just let events and experiences sweep you along without your conscious participation.

There is another thought-provoking maxim related to but distinct from “Know thyself,” also grounded in the Greek and Roman classics: “Take care of yourself, attend to yourself.” This variant was highlighted by Michel Foucault in a lecture called “Technologies of the Self.” Foucault insists that this “taking care of yourself” is “a real form of activity, not just an attitude.” It’s like taking care of a household or a farm or a kingdom. That’s what we are talking about in discussing “self-fashioning”: paying deliberate attention to your “self,” taking good care of it, tending and developing it, not just taking it for granted.

This all sounds appealing, but like most young people, and most people across history, you are more likely to be self-absorbed than self-abandoning. What we may all need most is reflection on the importance of community, of other selves. I’m going to link the two in this essay because I believe firmly that we fashion our “selves” both in solitude and in society.

For most of us—certainly those of us on a university campus—solitude is a relatively rare experience. If we are to fashion ourselves, we will be doing so in the presence of other people, most of the time. We develop as selves through our interactions with other human beings—through relationships, beginning with the family and then the school and the neighborhood, through art, music, language, culture, ideas. Our selves are never, and cannot be, purely isolated beings: we are the products of our experience and our environment, and we need to understand the self in and through society, not as a stand-alone cardboard cutout.

The warnings of Montaigne and Rousseau about how this experience can deform us, pull us away from our true selves, misshape our selfhood, should be in our minds. But we should also recognize that most of what is best about us comes from our interactions with other individuals.

So the formation of selfhood that depends on having someone else shape you like a work of art falls short of forming a successful human being. And it’s not surprising that theories of education since the eighteenth century rely much more on individual choices and taking a significant responsibility for your own intellectual development.

In college, you have an exceptional amount of freedom to choose from the bewildering variety of great courses listed in the catalog, and the amazing proliferation of extracurricular activities, including both those that are already established and those that you might help organize, as so many Harvard students do. If you sometimes think, as you make these choices, about what kind of self this seminar (or this sport, or this club, or this office) will help you to become, you may find guidance here. Does this activity promise to make you a deeper, fuller, more interesting person? Does it expand your life in new ways, or build on what you have done before in ways that make you stronger? Does it challenge you to develop new mental or emotional muscles, so to speak?

According to these pieces of advice, you should think about society not as a kind of zoo or curiosity shop where you can pick up a persona that suits you, but as the source of inspirational exemplars, diverse possible ways of shaping yourself, fascinating models. This means reading biographies and history, novels and essays, and paying attention to how people you admire handle challenges as they come along.

Yet society is not only a source of inspiring examples: it is even more often, as Rousseau said so well, a source of profound pressures to behave in certain ways. Society will surely shape you, the opinions and preferences and activities of your family, your friends, your classmates and professional colleagues, everyone with whom you spend any considerable amount of time. But too often the pressures are negative and will not help you in your self-fashioning, as all of us know when we reflect on peer culture, websites, TV shows, and movies. For worthwhile self-fashioning, you need a surrounding society that speaks to what is most importantly human, and brings you together with others in rewarding collective activities.

In the fifth chapter of her powerful work of political philosophy, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt discusses the connections between individuals and political communities. She notes that each human being is “distinguished from any other who is, was, and ever will be”—which is a vivid way of thinking about selfhood. Yet precisely because each of us is a distinct individual, we need speech and action to communicate; I cannot just sense instinctively what somewhat else is thinking. In speaking and acting, we “disclose ourselves” and thus expose ourselves to possible misunderstanding or exploitation by others, but also to the rich possibilities of communication.

Speech and action, in Arendt’s sense, cannot exist in isolation; they are meaningful only within human relationships. By the same token, “human nature”—as distinct from our more animal qualities—depends precisely on our capacity for speech and action: it is in fact through speech and action that each of us constitutes our self. This is Arendt’s distinctive contribution to our discussion of self-fashioning: the self is created not by each of us as individuals in isolation, but through the activities we share with other human beings—language, creativity, striving, politics. If your goal is to fashion a worthwhile self, you should be mindful of your surroundings and choose companions and activities that will give you opportunities to develop your language, creativity, striving, and politics in more depth.

…But if you are to have a whole, integrated, complete self, you must resist becoming totally immersed in private spheres. You must see it as part of your self-interest and your moral duty to play your part in society, to give something of yourself away to others who are in need, to help sustain the common structures that make up our public life. If you fail to do this, you will become a shrunken and diminished self. Recognition of this fact is what Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood,” or “enlightened self-interest”: not pure egoism or selfishness, but caring for yourself in the context of acknowledging your responsibilities to others, which brings with it significant moral commitments and deep rewards.

So whether they have too little solitude or too much, women have often had a different experience of solitude and society from men. Men can leave the house and go off on a journey in many societies where women can never travel alone. Women in most cultures have had much less opportunity than men to explore the world, follow their adventurous inclinations. And they have been less likely to have a place or time where they can enjoy solitude. It’s worth keeping this in mind when you read authors who write about self-fashioning. You can sometimes stop and ask: Would this advice have worked for a woman in the society this author is describing? Or are these generalizations accurate only for the men? What, after all, were the women doing in this society?

Let me close with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance”: “It is easy to live in the world after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

This is the image I want to leave you with: developing the ability to maintain “with perfect sweetness” the independence of solitude—the integrity and wholeness of the self—in the midst of the crowd. Your education should give you the capacity to shape and sustain your selfhood. It should both furnish richly the back shop of your mind, and prepare you to be a productive member of whatever society you live in. And at best, it should also give you the ability to retreat into yourself even in the midst of a busy life when you need to get your bearings, refresh your spirit, reaffirm your integrity, and confirm what is most important to your self.

“The solution to a bad dream isn’t to argue yourself into a better dream, but to wake up and look at the world—then laugh or cry or be bored.”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/30/2013

Excursions with Edward F. Mooney Part III: Whirling, Living, Dancing – Dean Dettloff

All this is far from “how to” advice. I think we improvise our way into what becomes a life, and that means listening to the last two notes we played, as well as knowing some basics: Am I any good on the sax? Should I stick to drums? Am I paying attention to what the rest of the ensemble is doing? And there are other questions. How do I discover a leaning, a capability, a pleasure, a calling? John Rawls talks misleadingly of “life plans”—I suppose this is on the model of “investment plans” or “career plans.” My mind doesn’t work that way. I can’t put down general “learning objectives” for my classes. I don’t have a life plan for my life, and don’t know what my long term objectives are (if I have any). If something goes bad, I have something to say. But I don’t start with a plan or desire for specific outcomes—except in the most platitudinous sense: stay healthy, don’t starve, be a mensch. In class, if asked for an overall aim, I’d say “get to love these issues, texts, figures, passages. Praise what you love. Get comfortable sharing your growing interests and loves as you ramble or stumble through the whirl, eye ready for sudden insight, sudden center.”

A recent magazine piece (maybe in the Guardian?) by Wittgenstein’s biographer, Ray Monk reflects on Wittgenstein’s collection of photographs. There’s a connection between looking at the photos collected and Wittgenstein’s emphasis on looking — rather than explaining. In a parody, we could say that philosophers explain-explain-explain. They can forget to just look at the world, or flow with it, or listen to it (like listening to music). Wittgenstein thinks that philosophy is not a set of theories, one of which may be correct. Nor is it a set of bad theories about to be replaced, thank God, by the good theory I’ve just concocted. Enlightened as I surely am, I hereby stop this proliferation of error by announcing the truth. (It’s nice to fantasize omniscience.)

Wittgenstein thinks philosophies are symptoms of unhappiness, of verbal and intellectual confusion, of anxieties that are nearly inescapable. (Don’t we really, really, need to understand?) But maybe these inescapable worries are rather unreal, like a bad dream—real enough in the moment, and troubling, but forgettable when you awake and can so easily change the subject. The solution to a bad dream isn’t to argue yourself into a better dream, but to wake up and look at the world—then laugh or cry or be bored. Whatever your reaction after fresh contact, you’d no longer worry about whether the world exists, or whether feelings are always dangerous and unreliable, or whether moral relativity is true or false. You’d soak up the morning, act as you act, and solve your daily problems the way most persons do—one by one, with a minimum of ‘theory’ directing them. So…stop explaining. Just look! That’s Wittgenstein’s advice. Acknowledge your confusion, but the aim is to move into life—join the dance!

Wittgenstein had a deep interest in religion, in Tolstoy, Goethe, and Kierkegaard: he wrote, echoing a bit of Kierkegaard, “faith is a passion; wisdom, like cool grey ash.” He carried Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief to the trenches during WWI, and read from it every day. His Investigations is like a maze or storm at sea or series of unsolvable puzzles, full of almost biblical enigmas. You might say it holds both that human life has no Ground, no big foundation in logic or a rock-solid God, Science or Reason, and that it nevertheless has all the (God-given?) ground it needs—in overlooked aspects of life: the smile of a child, the rise of the sun, the sound of a clarinet, or a call to prayer from a minaret. To feel that, to live from it, would be something like leading a life of faith, being grounded in it. “All theory is grey, my friend, but ah, the glad golden tree of life is green.” Yes, that’s good, but not quite Wittgenstein. For him, theory might be “cool grey ash” but life was too polychromatic, including shades of black, to qualify as golden or green. In any case, it’s not just too much theory that makes for what he called “the darkness of the times”—his and ours. In his 1929 Notebook he writes enigmatically, “What is good is also divine.” He refused ashes. He could imbibe good: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

I know that’s not a ringing conclusion, but it needn’t be reason for disappointment or angst. Except in rare instances, it’s not a well-plotted research program that culminates in definitive findings, conclusions, and closure. It’s a register of deep wonder and yearning. If that’s right, then philosophy will be always asking, no matter what, and always opening an impoverished agenda, and always improvising its way.

The hegemony of professional distance in academic life – Soulcraft vs. scholarship

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/26/2013

Excursions with Edward F. Mooney Part I: Style, Lyricism, and Lost Intimacy – Dean Dettloff

If a writer knocks on my door, and I only remark on their height or weight, I’ll have missed an essential dimension of their being. I can report on what a philosopher said for an exam, if required. But that would leave the living spirit of the saying out of my response. I want to convey my sense of the living spirit I’ve been excited by. If I adopt “professional distance” as a posture of response, then I’ll be leaving out ever so much. Lyrical philosophers (I can’t think of a better name) deserve lyrical response, especially if there’s a reason they need to be lyrical. So I guess that leads to a question beyond the question of why I write the way I do. It leads to asking why Thoreau and Kierkegaard (for example) write the way they do. Why does anybody need lyrical philosophy?

DD: That, of course, is a question deserving some exploration. Why does anybody need lyrical philosophy?

EFM: Of course, that’s the big question. Let’s say we grant that Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or Plato or Schopenhauer have moments of great lyricism. Let’s assume this isn’t an accident or mere aesthetic flourish but a moment when each feels that to say what they want to say lyricism is inescapable. Why should this be?

Well, it’s based in philosophical anthropology, I think. We are calculating logic-wielding creatures and can be marvelous proof machines (and counter-example machines). We can shine at producing persuasive logical argument tending toward definitive conclusions. That’s our stock in trade as philosophers. We are also, at a more primal level, deeply moral creatures, wanting a fair deal, wanting reciprocal trust, needing to promise and to have promises honored. So lots of philosophy deals with understanding these matters of logic, argument, and morals.

We are, at an equally primal level, creatures of dance and singing, theater and narrative. Sometimes—especially when we move out of the corrals of logic and forensic morality—we face wild questions (Why death? Why birth? Why suffering? Why rain? Why love lost? Why love requited? Why injustice? Why beauty?). These can be given “social scientific” answers, but they also resonate deeper than that. At this deep level, they can best be articulated (if not answered) lyrically, artistically, religiously. Dance and singing, theater and narrative, articulate the enigma that we are creatures who in fact agonize over these questions (Why do we bother? What’s the evolutionary advantage? What’s the practical advantage?). And perhaps it’s our essence as humans to be self-reflective this way. We agonize even as answers continue to elude us, and even as we know they will always elude us.

I see lyrical philosophy as approaching poetry and great narrative, myth and song—say in Schopenhauer or Thoreau or parts of Plato—at exactly those moments when these wild questions obtrude. They strike at an angle that tells us that logic and morals and standard arguments fall short. These fail to address them in their depth. And we know just as certainly that we will falter in giving lasting or satisfying answers. But we can’t leave the questions, in all their intensity and passion, unvoiced, suppressed, abandoned by the road. We dance without practical or logical rationale to express what seems to elude our everyday philosophical capacities. We write a hybrid philosophy that melds with the poetic, musical and dance-like.

The philosophical bearing of lyrical philosophy is to express those heartfelt, nagging, inescapably wild questions that surely ought not to be buried or avoided. Are we not, as persons, drenched in love and love-lost, envy and eloquence, new life and old age, iniquity and pain of every sort—and also drenched in great moments of unspeakable serenity and joy? Aren’t these worth philosophical memorialization, praise, and lament?

I shouldn’t forget the quieter hurts that could use quieter healings. There are sufferings that don’t appear in the daily news or in hospital statistics. My student with a blank look on her face; or the other one who drops out, preferring dorm drinking to whatever a poem might offer. There’s the other guy, who freaks at the idea of putting a thought in a sentence; there’s the one whose parents exert devastating pressure to succeed on their kid, now a senior (translation: “make enough money that our investment in your education won’t have been in vain”); then, the one who has become a smart-aleck cynic. Often the hurt comes from a sense of disconnection from anything that matters—a lost intimacy with others and our shared world.

I think sometimes it’s only when we come across writing that speaks to soul-ache that we can “discover” how much we hurt. We’re given a measure of articulation and depth. We unexpectedly feel recognition of our own pains and joys that we had not yet found words to equal. The discovery of expressiveness is a discovery of what we have to express. At the moment it arrives to us, we become vulnerable and then capable of returning expressiveness in kind. We can find ourselves hurting or singing or carried away in exaltation just as a sentence we’ve encountered bespeaks hurt or song or exaltation.

What I’ve called “lost intimacy” is the loss, I suppose, of participating in occasions of such expressive mutuality. It’s the loss of lyricism in philosophy, or the feel of the poetic in universities and much of cultural life, and the hegemony of an ideal of professional distance and suspicion of what I’ve called the soul. It’s related to the fact that we don’t have companions or mentors with whom we can speak about the joys that course through our lives, or about the emptiness that can cloud our days, or make nightmares of sleep. We have professionals who in therapy “hear our story,” and we sometimes have Rabbis or Gurus, Pastors or Coaches or Priests. But we also need to share intimate matters as equals, not just as client to an expert responder, or priest to parishioner. Attentive aunts, parents, siblings, or lovers might fill the bill. I think complaints about unchecked globalization and technology bespeak a fear that fragile enclaves of intimacy (if they exist) are increasingly at risk.

“the human being is above all a creature of repetition and artistry” – Keith Ansell-Pearson on Peter Sloterdijk

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/09/2013

Philosophy of the Acrobat: On Peter Sloterdijk – Keith Ansell-Pearson

The thesis that religion has returned after the alleged failure of the Enlightenment project needs to be confronted, Sloterdijk argues, with a clearer view of what we can legitimately consider as “spiritual facts.” Such a consideration shows that the return to and of religion is impossible since, so goes Sloterdijk’s initial contention, religion does not, in fact, exist. Instead, what exist are only misunderstood spiritual regimens. All human life requires the cultivation of matters of body and soul, and all philosophies and religions have attended to this fundamental feature of our existence. By this view, any clear-cut dichotomy of believers and unbelievers falls away. In place of this dichotomy, we should distinguish between the practicing and the untrained, or those who train differently.

…He wishes to give a new truth to the insight developed by Marx and the Young Hegelians in the 1840s that contends that “man produces man”: in short, the human being is never given to itself or to anything else, but produces and reproduces its own conditions of existence and as a project of personal development, even an adventure. Sloterdijk, however, differs from Marx and the Hegelians in not wanting to place the stress on labor or work as the key category by which to understand this self-forming process of man. He proposes that the language of work be transfigured into that of “self-forming and self-enhancing behaviour.” We need, then, to go beyond both the myth of homo faber and of homo religiosus and to understand the human being as a creature that results from repetition. As he notes, humans live in habits, not in territories. If the 19th century can be viewed as standing under the sign of production, and the 20th century under the sign of reflexivity, then we need to grasp the future under the sign of the exercise. None of this refining and purifying work is without significance for our understanding of the human animal, since it holds the potential for unlocking anew the secrets of the human animal, including a reinvigoration of the key words by which we understand our so-called spiritual life, words such as “piety,” “morality,” “ethics,” and “asceticism.”

For Sloterdijk the human being is above all a creature of repetition and artistry, the “human in training” as he puts it, or which we could call shaping and self-shaping. Not only is the earth the ascetic planet par excellence, as Nietzsche contended, it’s also the acrobatic planet par excellence.

Sloterdijk contends that human beings are always subject to “vertical tensions” in all periods and in all cultural areas: “Wherever one encounters human beings, they are embedded in achievement fields and status classes.” I take Sloterdijk to be referring in general terms to the self-surpassing tendencies of the human animal, or its perfectionist aspirations. Thus, he recalls at the outset the Platonic Socrates, saying that man is the being who is potentially superior to himself. He takes this to indicate that all cultures and subcultures rely on distinctions by which the field of human possibilities gets subdivided into polarized classes: religious cultures are founded on the distinction between the sacred and the profane; aristocratic cultures base themselves on the distinction between the noble and the common; military cultures establish a distinction between the heroic and the cowardly; athletic cultures have the distinction between excellence and mediocrity; cognitive cultures rely on and cultivate a distinction between knowledge and ignorance; and so on. There is thus in humans an upward-tending trait, and this means for Sloterdijk that when one encounters humans, one will always find acrobats. One great modern “myth” of our time that captures this, and the idea of verticality in general, is that of Nietzsche’s tale in Thus Spoke Zarathustra of the being that is fastened on a rope between animal and superhuman. What model of vertical perfection and “progress” is encapsulated in this idea?

This is where matters get controversial in Sloterdijk’s study since he is dealing with matters such as training in the sense of “breeding” that have a highly dubious history. However, here he endeavors to be dexterous in his appreciation of projects that aim to fashion new human beings. On the one hand, he takes seriously Nietzsche’s seemingly fantastical ideas about the ?bermensch; on the other, he is severely critical of the “Soviet” attempt to create a new human and a new society by means of large-scale social and technological engineering. In reading Nietzsche, Sloterdijk does not find a biological or eugenics program (in spite of all the talk about “breeding” in Nietzsche), but an artistic and acrobatic discourse in which the emphasis is on training, discipline, education, and self-design. As Nietzsche has Zarathustra say, one builds over and beyond oneself — but to do this well one needs to be built first “four-square in body and soul.” The human subject needs to be seen as a carrier of “exercises,” made up of, on the passive side, an aggregate of individuated effects of habitus, and, on the active side, a center of competencies that allow for some minimal sense of self-direction and self-mastery. Should we thus not calmly agree with Nietzsche that egotism is but “merely the despicable pseudonym of the best human possibilities”?

Ransacking the Western philosophical tradition – Adam Kirsch on Peter Sloterdijk

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 08/08/2013

Against Cynicism: A philosopher’s brilliant reasons for living – Adam Kirsch

Despite its parodic Kantian title, Sloterdijk’s Critique is not a work of theoretical abstraction; it is a highly personal confession of this generational world-weariness. As a philosopher, Sloterdijk is especially struck by the way he and his peers were able to master the most emancipatory and radical philosophical language, but utterly unable to apply its insights to their own lives and their own political situations. Coming after Critical Theory, whose post-Marxist diagnoses of social ills are a key reference point and antagonist for Sloterdijk, younger thinkers have found themselves brilliant at diagnosis and helpless at cure. “Because everything has become problematic, everything is also somehow a matter of indifference,” Sloterdijk observes. The result is cynicism, which he defines in a splendid paradox as “enlightened false consciousness”: “It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice.”

If we are to break out of this learned helplessness, Sloterdijk argues, we must ransack the Western tradition for new philosophical resources. Such ransacking is exactly the method of Sloterdijk’s thought, first in the Critique and then, on an even grander scale, in Bubbles and You Must Change Your Life. Drawing on very wide reading—wider, the reader often feels, than it is deep—Sloterdijk excavates the prehistory of contemporary problems, and some of their possible solutions. In the Critique, he offers an extended analysis of the culture of Weimar Germany, in which he locates the origin of twentieth-century cynicism—as well as describing the many sub-varieties of cynicism (military, sexual, religious), and doing a close reading of Dostoevsky, and cataloguing the meaning of different facial expressions. The effect on the reader is of being shown around a Wunderkammer, where what matters is not the advancing of an argument but the display of various intellectual treasures.

In Critique of Cynical Reason, Sloterdijk charted a wholly individual path to a familiar spiritual position, a Romanticism of what Wordsworth called “wise passiveness.” This pattern is repeated in Sloterdijk’s later books: he is better at the forceful restatement of old problems than at the invention of new solutions. This might be regarded as an objection by certain kinds of philosophers, who see themselves as contributors to a technical process that produces concrete results. For Sloterdijk, whose greatest influences are Nietzsche and Heidegger, it is not at all disqualifying, for his goal is, as he writes in You Must Change Your Life, “a provocative re-description of the objects of analysis.” Like a literary writer—and he once told an interviewer that he thought of writing the Spheres trilogy as a novel—Sloterdijk’s goal is to restate our basic quandaries in revelatory new language, to bring them home to us as living experiences instead of stale formulas. The prison of reason, the need for transcendence, the yearning for an absent meaning: these have been the stuff of literature and philosophy and theology for centuries. In Sloterdijk, these old subjects find a timely new interpreter.

But if Sloterdijk is not a believer, then where does he think we can actually experience this kind of perfectly trusting togetherness? Where do we find a sphere that is wholly earthly, yet so primal as to retain its power even now? The answer is surprising, even bizarre. In a long section of Bubbles, Sloterdijk argues that the original sphere, the one we all experience and yearn to recapture, is the mother’s womb. This is not, for him, a place of blissful isolation, where the subject can enjoy illusions of omnipotence; if it were, the womb would be only a training ground for selfishness and disillusion. Sloterdijk emphasizes instead that we are all in our mother’s womb along with a placenta. The placenta is what he calls “the With”—our first experience of otherness, but a friendly and nurturing otherness, and thus a model for all future “spheres” of intimacy.

The reader who has no patience for this kind of thing—who finds the whole “With” concept New Agey, or unfalsifiable, or just wildly eccentric—will probably not get very far with Sloterdijk. This is not because placenta-ism is central to his thought. On the contrary, it is just one of the many provocative ideas that he develops and then drops in the course of the book, which reads less like a structured argument than a long prose poem. Sloterdijk’s strength and appeal come from the intuitive and metaphorical quality of his thought, his unconventional approaches to familiar problems, his willingness to scandalize. As a theorem, the “With” is easy to refute; as a metaphor, it is weirdly persuasive. It is another way of describing, and accounting for, the central experience of homelessness that drives all of Sloterdijk’s thought. Deprived of our “With,” he writes, “the officially licensed thesis ‘God is dead’ ” must be supplemented “with the private addendum ‘and my own ally is also dead.’ ”

The word “practice” is central to Sloterdijk’s argument here, and to his understanding of religion. We are living, he observes, at a time when religion is supposedly making a comeback around the world. The old assurance that all societies must inevitably converge on secularism is failing. For Sloterdijk, however, it is a mistake to think that what people are turning to is faith in the divine. Rather, the part of religion that still matters to us, for which we have a recurring need, is its practices: the “technology,” primarily mental and inner-directed, that allows us to reshape our ways of thinking and feeling. With typical bravado, he argues that “no ‘religion’ or ‘religions’ exist, only misunderstood spiritual regimens.

One of the most appealing things about Sloterdijk’s philosophy is that, like literature, it leaves itself vulnerable. It does not attempt to anticipate and to refute all possible objections. And the objections to You Must Change Your Life, as with Bubbles, are not far to seek. For one thing, by conceiving of religion as an elite training regimen, Sloterdijk implies that a religion is justified only by its saints. Anyone who is not a saint is insignificant, and so the average person’s experience of religious meanings—whether metaphysical doctrine or spiritual consolation or tradition or identity or communion—is dismissed out of hand. This is false to the lived reality of religion for most people, and shows how tendentious Sloterdijk’s equation of religion with “practice” really is.

…This is as much as to say that Sloterdijk has not solved the immense problems that he raises, even though he claims to know the way toward the solution. But maybe the philosopher does not need to solve problems, only to make them come alive; and this he does as well as any thinker at work today.

Kant didn’t just screw us with aesthetics, but ethics as well – Wisdom and the particular vs. Knowledge and the universal

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/21/2013

Godless yet good – Troy Jollimore [I am happy to see Murdoch get some well deserved attention, but surprised that her friend and colleague, Mary Midgley ‘s work isn’t mentioned. See this for example. And what about Nel Noddings?]

This emphasis on being attentive to concrete reality tallies with the idea that it is the emotions (compassion and sympathy in particular), rather than abstract rational principles, that are doing the motivating when it comes to ethical behaviour. Together they embody a critique of moral views, such as Kant’s, which rely on inflexible ethical principles allegedly derived from logic itself. In the work of McDowell, this critique is developed into a position called ‘moral particularism’, which rejects altogether the idea that we might one day compose or possess an ethical rulebook that would define the right thing to do in any conceivable situation. After all, what can count as a moral reason in one context might fail to be a reason in another, or might even be, in certain contexts, a reason pointing in the other direction.

…However, more recent investigators tend to prefer a picture in which several distinct and perhaps incommensurable factors make contributions to a person’s happiness. This fits in well with the particularists’ view that evaluation is always a holistic matter. It is worth remembering, too, that Aristotle understood eudaimonia, which is frequently translated into English as ‘happiness’, as something considerably broader and less subjective than pleasure or momentary satisfaction. Instead, it has to do with the general quality of one’s life as a whole.

For particularists, then, individual perception and judgment are always necessary to decide difficult ethical questions: there is no theoretical ethical system that can do the work for us. Principles are useful, perhaps, but only as rules of thumb, practical guidelines that hold for the most part, but to which there will always be exceptions. At the foundational level, ethics is built not on a system of rules, but on individual human beings who possess character, judgment, and wisdom.

Particularism re-opens the door to the idea of wisdom. It is an idea that Kantian and utilitarian ethics — and, for that matter, the modern world in general — have great trouble taking seriously. Wisdom, as opposed to knowledge, might seem a somewhat quaint notion in the contemporary world. (Indeed at this point even the word ‘knowledge’ sounds quaint to many people, who prefer to talk about ‘data’ or ‘information.’) The modern desire to replace individual wisdom and judgment with more objective, scientific methods of decision-making and evaluation has had profound effects on many aspects of our lives. In the field of education, where I work, it has led to ever-increasingly complex systems of rules and standards for professional conduct, for assessing teaching effectiveness, for making promotion decisions, even for designing courses and course curricula. The prevailing attitude is that we need a system of rules and principles to make and justify every decision, because we cannot trust the individuals involved enough to leave it up to their good judgment — even when the individuals involved are highly trained experts and just the sort of people capable of discerning how rules and principles should be implemented, and when they should be ignored or adapted. Similarly, the current plague of standardised testing inflicted on students leads to the slighting of skills and traits that are difficult to quantify: artistic talents, creativity, and moral attributes, among many others. This prevailing attitude is one that many Kantians and utilitarians would applaud, and one that Aristotle would deplore.


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Adorno the Grumpy Puritan – Richard Shusterman on Art and Pleasure

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/30/2012

Come back to Pleasure – Richard Shusterman

Up until modern times, to identify art with the pursuit of pleasure was not at all a way of trivializing art. For pleasure was anything but a trivial matter, not even for philosophers. The ancients (most notably the Cyrenaics and Epicureans) often defined pleasure as the prime good and usually saw it as an essential component of happiness. Even Plato, to make his case for philosophy’s superiority to art and other practices, needed to argue for its superior joys. Looking back on the ancients at the very dawn of modern thought, Montaigne confirms the primacy of pleasure.  “All the opinions in the world agree on this — that pleasure is our goal — though they choose different means to it”. Even, he adds, “in virtue itself, the ultimate goal we aim at is voluptuousness”.

The pleasures of meaning and expression point to another crucial dimension of art’s enjoyment which is often obscured — its deeply social dimension.  Too often it is assumed that art’s enjoyment is subjective, hence essentially private and narrowly individualistic.  But even if one feels one’s aesthetic pleasure in one’s own mind and senses, this in no way precludes the shared character of our enjoyment, nor the fact that our enjoyment is heightened by our sense of its being shared.  Whether in the theatre, the concert hall, the museum, or the cinemateque, our aesthetic experience gains intensity from the sense of sharing something meaningful together, of communicating silently yet deeply by communally engaging the same potent meanings and visions of beauty, and experiencing shared pleasures. Art’s power to unite society through its enchanting pleasures of communication is a theme that resounds from Schiller to Dewey, who boldly claims that “art is the most effective mode of communication that exists”.  By creating and reinforcing group solidarity through the sharing of communicative pleasures, art’s entertainment performs a crucial social function whose evolutionary role in the development of human culture and society should not be overlooked.

With this sacralization of art comes the rigid hierarchy of high and low (a counterpart of the sacred/profane distinction). Entertainment is automatically relegated to the sphere of profane lowness, no matter how aesthetically subtle, sophisticated, and rich in meaning it may be. Even in the realm of high art, Hegel introduces a rigid hierarchy of art styles and art genres, based on their level of spiritual truth and their remoteness from materiality. The plastic arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting lie at the bottom of the ladder because of the physicality of their media.  Poetry, in contrast, stands at the top because, through its ideal medium of language, it approaches the spirituality of pure thought.

  I close with a cautionary reminder. Advocating art’s pleasures should not mean substituting them for the pleasures of life while also neglecting those victims of injustice whose lives know more misery than joy. Nor should we forget that even arts of radical social protest gain power from the zest of righteous anger and the thrill of common struggle, pleasures that enhance or complete (in Aristotle’s sense) the activity of protest.  To think that prizing pleasure means condemning art to frivolity and narcotic escapism is one more fallacy based on presuming all pleasures to be uniform and shallow, but it also rests on the trite but deadly dogma that opposes art to life.

Edward Mooney – Lost Intimacy in American Thought [Part I]

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/08/2012

Lost Intimacy in American Thought – Edward Mooney

[Thoreau and Bugbee] write ‘salvations’ that raise life from decline; they are philosophers who write intimately, personally, for love of the world.

He [Bugbee] proposed that philosophy was “a walking meditation of the place.”…a philosophy that brings life to things, a lyrical philosophy that finds plenitudes in them.

To test a world by theory, we retreat from the-world-to-be-theorized and size it up in terms of that theory. Thus the detachment of theory is the detachment of the theorizer from an intimate immersion in the world…this stance of ‘looking at’ (rather than beholding) destroys the wider intimacy that a religious sensibility seeks and sometimes finds…To know a sunset intimately is in part to bask in its presence, which is to find ourselves basking – not theorizing.

His [Thoreau’s] walking is an exercise in weaving the world, weaving the self, weaving contacts that occur as revelations of the world as a place overflowing with meaning – even holy, so deep is its significance.

…philosophy becomes identified less with a saving journey, and more with a cognitive grasp attained through abstract products – explanatory or critical schemes…thinking theoretically vaults one above or outside the fray in an aspiration to motionless onlooking that freezes that onlooker in a narrow slice of the significant range of life’s wider plenitudes. To cut back from the immersions and submersions, passional and practical, that are the tissue of life is to cut adrift from opportunities for self-knowledge. A knowing contact with oneself cannot come about through distancing oneself from vital contacts.

…One travels, with baggage, passions, and commitments. Sometimes the wondrous is not in the remote valley or mountain top, or distant heavens but in the local. One finds the astonishing as one moves with and around parochial passions, promises, and practices. Then philosophy [or social practice] can become a quasi-religious journey toward the intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of  family or neighborhood life, of rock-climbing and cooking, of the ups and downs of walking a friend through cancer, or of swimming away from catastrophe.

…the uninterrupted ‘eternal’ standpoint of theory, or of the benefits of impersonal theory-production, a detached stalling that occludes our particular immersions in local pains and delights, family ties and occupational demands…his [Bugbee] condition clarified, not by argument or theory but by moving ever deeper into his condition.

Richard Shusterman – Art, Self-fashioning, Philosophy

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/20/2012

Interview with Richard Shusterman in Parachute: Art and Self-Fashioning

Philosophy can be practiced simply as an academic pursuit of theory, but it can also be practiced as an art of living. Here again, I try to combine both practices (as was common in ancient times). I write academic books and articles, but I also see my philo-sophical work in terms of an æsthetic project of em-bodied life, a Gesamtkunstwerk of engaged living in a wider social world beyond the borders of my skin and professional philosophy.

…A philosopher’s life and œuvre can be conceived, lived and assessed in terms of the way we evaluate artworks. We can appreciate its harmony, dynamics, beauty, originality, structure, development. One notices if the philosopher’s work becomes merely repetitive or whether it evolves in new, perhaps dramatically different but still coherent ways. (One thinks here of early and later Wittgenstein or early and later Heidegger or even early and later Foucault.) In the project of philosophy as a self-critical, self-perfecting, self-fashioning art of living, one is at the same time both creating an œuvre and struggling to formulate and defend the criteria by which that œuvre will be evaluated. But this is also true for great poet-critic-theorists like T.S. Eliot or great painter-theorists.

Philosophy, a Living Practice – Grace, Place, and the Natural World – Kathleen Dean Moore – The Ecology of Love

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/05/2012

Words will never describe my love for Kathleen Dean Moore.

A Weakened World Cannot Forgive Us: An Interview with Kathleen Dean Moore – Derrick Jensen

Jensen: Immersion doesn’t occur overnight. It takes a long time to get to know a place, and for it to get to know you.

Moore: That’s especially true given the separations that characterize our contemporary Western lives. We don’t lead lives of “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau claimed. We lead lives of relentless separation – comings and goings, airport embraces, loneliness, locked doors, notes left by the phone. And the deepest of all those divides is the one that separates us from the places we inhabit. Everywhere I go, I encounter people who have come from someplace else and left behind their knowledge of that land. Universities, which should study connections, specialize in distinctions instead. Biologists in their laboratories forget that they are natural philosophers. Philosophers themselves pluck ideas out of contexts, like worms out of holes, and hold them dangling and drying in the bright light. We lock ourselves in our houses and seal the windows and watch nature shows on tv. We don’t go out at night unless we have mace, or in the rain without a Gore-Tex jacket. No wonder we forget that we are part of the natural world, members of a natural community. If we are reminded at all, it’s only by a sense of dislocation and a sadness we can’t easily explain.

…if philosophy is concerned with big, abstract ideas, then it must be di-vorced from the details of our lives. I believe that is a huge mistake. If philosophy is about big ideas, then it must be about how we live our lives. If I find out what a human being is, to borrow Socrates’ example, then I will know what makes one human life worth living.

Most philosophers work in isolation on little intellectual islands, and when people live in isolation for a few generations, they start to speciate, develop their own languages, and twitter in words that only they can understand.

People are desperate for the kind of insights philosophers can provide. When I speak to fisheries biologists, or wetland managers, or conservation groups, they are all looking for someone to articulate the worldviews and values that can help us make sound decisions. Scientists can tell us how to save wild salmon, for example, but it’s up to philosophers and others to tell us why we should. The values, the moral imperatives, the framing ideas – all these are missing from the public debate, in part because philosophers are too busy publishing arcane tracts that no one but a tenure committee will ever read.

Jensen: Why is it so hard for philosophers to write about real-life issues?

Moore: I think part of the problem has to do with striving for a specific kind of clarity and certainty. It took me probably twenty years to realize how steep a price philosophers have paid for this peculiar clarity. The first thing to go was the philosopher as a person. By writing always about ideas and never about themselves, philosophers became disembodied authorities with no past, no future, no reason for wondering, or even for living.

What happened then is that the range of possible subjects narrowed: the things one can write most clearly about are also the simplest, and nothing in real life is simple. So the philosophers I met in graduate school wrote about such pure, slick-surfaced ideas as truth and consistency, but not about home, not about landscape, not about parents, not about fish.

Jensen: I would like a philosophy that teaches me how to live: How can I be a better person? How can I live my life more fruitfully, more happily, more relationally?

Moore: These are traditionally the most significant philosophical questions, but they’ve been washed off the surface of philosophy by the twentieth century.

It’s a failure of courage, I think. Real-life issues are messy and ambiguous and contradictory and tough. But their complexity should be a reason to engage them, not a reason to turn away. The word clarity has two meanings: one ancient, the other modern. In Latin, clarus meant “clear sounding, ringing out,” so in the ancient world, clear came to mean “lustrous, splendid, radiant.” The moon has this kind of clarity when it’s full. But today that usage is obsolete. Now clear has a negatively phrased definition: “without the dimness or blurring that can obscure vision, without the confusion or doubt that can cloud thought.” For probably twenty years, I thought that this modern kind of clarity was all there was; that what I should be looking for as a philosopher was sharp-edged, single-bladed truth; that anything I couldn’t understand precisely wasn’t worth thinking about. Now I’m beginning to understand that the world is much more interesting than this.

…to lead a moral life we have to acknowledge the depth and complexity of our ties to our natural communities – our own experience of caring for those communities, and the value we place on caring. And we must commit ourselves to acts that grow out of love. Aldo Leopold said, “Sing our love for the land and our obligation to it.” It’s amazing how quickly obligation follows on the heels of love.

What is called for are not just acts of enlightened self-interest, but acts that grow from our connections and acknowledge the worth of the land we care for so deeply. The right act isn’t the one that makes us happiest as individuals. The right act is the one that strengthens and reknits the web of relationships, and so tends, as Leopold said, “to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty” of the community.

Figuring out what’s right in any given instance isn’t easy. You have to learn about your natural communities – how things fit together, what makes communities flourish, what weakens their bonds. You have to study what one might call “the ecology of love.”

Jensen: What is the relationship between love and the natural world?

Moore: I’m always surprised when a nature writer describes going off alone to commune with nature. That way of relating to nature is all about isolation, and I don’t have much patience with it. To me, that’s not what being in nature is about at all.

In my life, the natural world has always been a way of connecting with people – my children, my husband, my friends. The richness of my experience in the natural world translates immediately into richer relationships with people.

I think one of the most romantic and loving things you can say to another person is “Look.” There is a kind of love in which two people look at each other, but I don’t think it’s as interesting as the love between two people standing side by side and looking at something else that moves them both.

Let’s think about this in terms of what we were saying about memory and identity: If we are our memories, then to the extent that two people share memories, they become one person. The whole notion of the joining of souls that’s supposed to happen in marriage may come down to those times when we say, “Look,” to our partner, so the two of us can capture a memory to hold in common.


Passion – Charlene Haddock Seigfried – Philosophy – Professionalization

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/08/2012

“Has Passion a Place in Philosophy?” – Charlene Haddock Seigfried

…Against the present trend toward ever more obscure specialization, [Richard] Shusterman argues that philosophy should be understood as ‘concretely embodied practice rather than formulated doctrine.”

What today’s philosophers need to recover from the original pragmatists is their radical criticism of academic philosophy, specifically, their rejection of detached analysis and internal criticism as definitive of philosophy proper.

“[quoting The Oxford Companion to Philosophy]…this increasing technicalization of philosophy has been achieved at the expense of its wider accessibility – and indeed even to its inaccessibility to members of the profession.”

“[quoting William Adams Brown 1921]..like all professionals who live by their trade the philosopher feels the need of showing that there is some particular thing that he can do that nobody else can do, in order to justify the salary which he draws.” Having been divested of exclusive rights to rational reflections on religion, politics, history, law, the physical universe, and psychology, philosophers claim the history of philosophy itself as their special subject matter. The game interest “[again quoting Brown]…is the interest of doing a thing for the sake of showing how well you can do it, irrespective of the end accomplisihed by the doing of it…[I]t is the interest of thinking for thinking’s sake, of defining and redefining, analyzing and reanalyzing, controverting and recontroverting…for the sake of showing that you are cleverer than the other fellow at the game you are both playing.

Philosophical Dinner Party – Frieda Klotz – Everyday Philosophy – Plutarch

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 05/28/2012

The Philosophical Dinner Party by Frieda Klotz

Plutarch thought philosophy should be taught at dinner parties. It should be taught through literature, or written in letters giving advice to friends. Good philosophy does not occur in isolation; it is about friendship, inherently social and shared.

Plutarch begins “Discussions” by asking his own philosophical question — is philosophy a suitable topic of conversation at a dinner party? The answer is yes, not just because Plato’s “Symposium” is a central philosophic text (symposium being Greek for “drinking party”); it’s because philosophy is about conducting oneself in a certain way — the philosopher knows that men “practice philosophy when they are silent, when they jest, even, by Zeus! when they are the butt of jokes and when they make fun of others.”

…it’s now more than ever that we need philosophy of the everyday sort. In the Plutarchan sense, friendship, parties and even wine, are not trivial; and while philosophy may indeed be difficult, we shouldn’t forget that it should be fun.

Gregory Pappas – Dewey’s Ethics – Democracy as Experience [Part IV]

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 05/07/2012

“Dewey used philosophy to make his hope reasonable, which is different than seeking a foundation or a rationalization for a way of life.”

“A philosophy of democracy is an imaginative effort to articulate in a coherent fashion the most salient traits of the most worthwhile experiences and possibilities of human interaction for the purpose of ameliorative criticism. Democracy rests on experiencing and discriminating better and worse forms  of interactions in daily life. It is precisely because meaningful and enriching relationships are hard to come by that we need to set them up as ideal and inquire into their conditions.”

“The art of listening needed in a democracy is a matter of embodied habits. Without a cadre of people with certain imaginative and emotional capacities there is no hope for democracy.”

“The recent interest on deliberation is a good corrective against narrow views of democracy, but political theorists must avoid the intellectualist temptation that has plagued the history of philosophy: the reduction of experience to the cognitive realm…How we experience each other in our everyday local and direct interactions is something more inclusive than how we talk and inquire together.”

“Intelligence for Dewey is not a faculty, but a general way of interacting…”

“You can guide but not reason someone into having the experiences that can validate democracy…the empirical philosopher must provide arguments, but she should also guide others (through descriptions and other means) to have the experiences that may confirm their hypotheses.”

“Dewey wanted to shift the focus of democracy to the present striving or democratization of experience instead of toward future results…There is no grandiose or ultimate war for the sake of which the piecemeal present battles are fought…Trying to transform everyday activity to make it richer and fuller relative to concrete present problems and possibilities is what we do in democracy as a way of life.”

The reasonableness of an ideal way of life is to be tested in lived experience by trying to live it…we can test our hypotheses only by living them. Participation can only be tested by participating. There is, then, no theoretical justification of democracy that can replace the support provided in favor of democracy by living and embodying democratic habits in our everyday interaction.” [emphasis mine]