Nov 20, 2013

Updates on New Projects

I've been finding myself with progressively less and less time available for blogging this last year -- which is actually a good thing, since the time has been going into:
  • producing a number of Philosophy-focused YouTube videos
  • regular activity on platforms like Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter
  • producing educational materials and uploading them in Academia, Learnist, and Curious
  • responding to comments and carrying on correspondence
  • teaching my current classes at Marist College, and exploring web-platforms to begin designing and delivering new online classes
  • educational consulting work, providing workshops, and delivering talks through ReasonIO
  • and. . . working on several book projects
For the time being, I'm going to be putting this blog (and my other blogs) on hold.  I'm hoping to be able to return to blogging here sometime next year.  I remain open to discussing projects, and you can reach me at greg@reasonio.com

Nov 7, 2013

Radio Show Guest Spot: Hegel and (Mis)Education in America

Last month, I appeared as a guest on Patrick McCarty's internet radio show, Insight Radio, along with a bright young high school student, Rohan Macherla, who has already developed a strong interest in an understanding of the daunting, difficult thought of G.W.F. Hegel.  The segment was to start out discussing the section "Self-Consciousness" from the Phenomenology of Spirit (famous for the portion called the Master-Slave Dialectic), and then go off in whatever directions seemed fit to us.

As it turned out, our conversation (the full recording of which is available here) ended up focusing more and more on the conditions of contemporary education, and in particular with the effects -- good or bad, aimed at or unintended -- of recent, and in some ways ubiquitous, technological innovations have had on education and culture.  Since our recording session, I've been mulling over certain unfinished lines of thought we outlined during the conversation.


Hegelian Context: Self-Consciousness, Master, and Slave

Early on in his Phenomenology, Hegel shifts the course of study away from the original task of following out and along with the dialectics of Consciousness -- the myriad movements in which consciousness attempts to completely grasp, to develop truth and certainty about, its objects, only to find them slipping away, revealing new unaccounted for sides, dimensions, and relationships.  The core of his philosophical project in that work is to chart out these progressive transformations -- not only of the objects being studied by the human being, but also how the human subject is altered through these processes of knowing, learning, investigating -- and acting, consuming, desiring.

When Hegel explicitly moves on to examining Self-Consciousness, he sets out from an insight that had become underappreciated, to say the least, in modern philosophy (prior to his work) -- there is no self which does not already exist as such in relation to its other, which is in fact another self, which in its turn reciprocally exists as such only in relation to an other.  To be a human being -- the determinate manner of being which is proper to human beings -- means, like it or not, existing in relation to (or really, in all sorts of relations, plural) to an other and to others.

Another way of putting this would be to say that the very structure of self consciousness transports the meaning, the essence of any single human being outside of themselves and into others.  Hegel in effect follows out some of the implications of Aristotle's insights in the The Politics, that an isolated human being is like a single piece on a gameboard -- not really much of anything, except in its relations with the rest of the pieces and the game itself (and also, that the human being who can in fact exist all on his own escapes the realm of the human, either by transcending into that of the divine, or falling into that of the merely animal).

So, to be a human being is to experience a lack, a negativity, within oneself, which is matched and measured, realized and remedied, by an other, another human being, from whom we can gain recognition, learn who and what we actually are, enter into relations.  It is also to experience the force of desire -- desire not only for external objects, but desire for another human being.  This generates, at least for Hegel (and at least at the start of the dialectic), a tragic and necessarily conflict-laden situation.

When a self-consciousness encounters another self-consciousness, it recognizes the other as being like itself -- and it desires recognition, on a higher level, from that other.  It is no longer sure and certain of itself -- its meaning and truth has passed over into the other to whom it realizes itself as vulnerable.  In effect, the self-consciousness not only finds itself confronted with an other, it also realizes that it has become other to itself -- and, to switch away from Hegel's metaphysical language to a more common idiom, that is a very uncomfortable state to find oneself in.


More Hegelian Context:  Master and Slave

It's never quite clear just what sort of process or condition Hegel should be taken to be describing in this portion of the Phenomenology.  Is it supposed to be an account of the dynamics and development of actual slave-holding societies and practices?  Or does it represent something less historical, more archetypical, a structure of consciousness marking or conditioning all human beings on some level?  Should it fall somewhere in between these -- a set of moments early on in the dialectical development of human consciousness and society -- a simpler state and set of relations which have been, not left behind so much, but incorporated into more and more complex configurations?

Whatever answer one gives to that question of interpretation -- and commentators on Hegel do vary considerably on that matter -- at least the dialectical progression, what happens with the master and the slave in the story Hegel is telling, is relatively straightforward.  You might say, with respect to both of them, that there's good news . . .  and then there's bad news.  It's easy to say, from a non-dialectical perspective, who's on top, who the winner is.  It's clearly the Master, right?  They get to call the shots, boss the slave around, obtain the satisfactions that human beings desire, which include exerting power over others, obtaining recognition, and enjoying the fruits of labor.

Or, perhaps, from a first encounter with dialectics, it's obviously the Slave who ends up winning.  After all, while the master luxuriates in enjoyment, failing to develop any further, the slave is forced to undergo processes of transformation, including self-transformation, painfully becoming other to him or herself for a space, but ending as having become a more highly developed being than the master.  Isn't that the case?

The longer I read and think about Hegel, the less simple of a verdict I find within this passage.  Hegel definitely describes a process of development on the part of the slave -- but just how effective is this in addressing the real problem which self-consciousness encounters: the experience of being alienated or estranged from one's own self, the realization that one's identity and meaning lie vulnerably within the hands, eyes, and desires of another, the hunger to conquer or steal back a sense of wholeness and assurance that one never really had but nevertheless nostalgically yearns for?  After all, the experiments with Stoicism, with Skepticism, with the Unhappy Consciousness -- replicated along so many other lines, if we follow along the lines Hegel himself describes and details -- follow the section on Master and Slave.  Those responses by the dialectical subject, the slave who remain unsatisfied, are just as equally shapes of Self-Consciousness, are they not?  For, after all, Hegel placed them within that section.  Should we not perhaps view the Unhappy Consciousness as the end-point of that process of development and unfolding?

Other problems of interpretation assert themselves as well.  Hegel insists that the development of the Slave requires, not as something optional, but as an essential condition, that the slave undergo the fear of death, something that jars and shakes the unfortunate in his or her very being, rendering them pliable to be reworked by the Master's will and command, by the Object upon which labor is set to work, and by the Slave's own internalization of that triad: Fear, Command, Work.  Without this experience, Hegel maintains, the will of the Slave never rises above stubbornness.

In the discussion with McCarty and Macherla, I suggested that we must interpret this "far of death" less literally, if we mean to incorporate the Master-Slave dialectic into our own experience, culture, and situations.  "Death" must be understood more broadly, as something akin to loss or destruction -- or stripping, deprivation of meaning -- not just of physical life.  Meaning can come in many forms, shapes, sizes, and in any of them it can be threatened, at least until the person has become entirely sure of their meaning and its relation to other meanings -- and that requires quite a bit of development to occur, a kind of mastery of one's own acquired either through finding power, on the one hand, or the apprenticeship of labor on recalcitrant (and thereby tutelary) objects on the other.

Technology:  Are We Masters Or Slaves?

One of the key topics to which our conversation turned -- one which I'd like to explore more in a further entry -- is the degree to which the human development and deployment of technology has actually catapulted so many of us into a position akin to that of the Hegelian Master -- the one who is able to enjoy the fruits of the Slave's labor, who feels assured of him or herself in some sort of identity, the one for whom the Other exists and works, producing and providing. 

This becomes an issue which is prefigured again by a much earlier discussion, again one with its roots in Aristotle's classic work, the Politics, in which Aristotle infamously justifies a certain kind of servitude -- one based upon a master who genuinely deserves mastery, and a slave incapable of governing him or herself well -- and writes of the slave as an "ensouled tool".  He muses about the possibility of tools which would perform their tasks without requiring immediate human direction, for example, shuttles that would move themselves through the loom.

If you have no idea, or just a vague one, or even a purely conceptual one of what a shuttle and loom do, produce, or involve, there's good reason for that -- we're disconnected, and we have been disconnected from those processes of productions, even while enjoying an incredible range of products that would make Aristotle's patron, Alexander the Great, puzzle over the once-kingly wealth readily available to residents of our times.  That's because we do have self-moving tools - technology. We have tools that guide and move and produce other tools , which then guide and produce, and move. . . .

So, in some sense we do occupy the position of the Hegelian Master.  True, most of us also have to work for a living -- and we're not yet at a George Jetson, 1-hour, button pushing workday.  In fact, the increases in efficiency in our economic activities and concerns have occurred in large part by requiring more in some respects of those engaged in various forms of productive activity.  We educators tell our current students (and politicians mouth mantras) that if they're to find remunerative work in a tougher, tighter, leaner economy, they need to work smart, be ready to make more commitments and sacrifices.  But, at the same time, we now live in a society that is -- at least in terms of material prosperity -- a leisure society.

As consumers, we're increasingly placed into the position of Master.  As employees -- even as employers or managers -- we're also, many of us, set into positions at times resembling those of the Hegelian Slave.  Perhaps not so much in terms of the "fear of death" -- though meaning, prestige, status, security, those are all up for grabs.  But in terms of the internalization of command -- something I'd like to write more about in another post?  Certainly.

And, more germane here -- what about being set to work on objects, and thereby having to labor upon not only them, but on and within oneself?  Division of labor has certainly narrowed the range of recalcitrant reality external to the self that one must work upon in one's profession, career or job. But, we do indeed learn by doing, by acting, by making, by reconfiguring. . . . at least those of us who bring to the locus of work a kind of curiosity, or drivenness, or even desperation.

To what degree, though, does technology, layer after layer, mediate this contact?  It depends considerably upon the kinds of skills, products, interventions.  Food production still requires that one get one's hands -- the "tool(s) of tools" in Aristotle's dictum -- into the mess.  Service professions require a different sort of often painful adaptation.  And, some work on the technology directly, servicing machines, reconfiguring them, even innovating and inventing.

The big question -- one which we explored in our discussion -- is this:  What about education?  And, that's one, after having thrown all these points out for consideration, I'm going to just leave open for the moment, and revisit later this month in a further post.

Oct 21, 2013

Heavy Metal Philosopher: 10 Great Classic Metal Bassists (What Makes for Greatness?)

One of the side-projects I started in August -- actually a sort of 43rd birthday indulgence to myself -- was starting a new blog, one focused particularly on intersections between classic heavy metal music (a love of both my youth and my middle age) and philosophy.  I'd decided not to say much about it until I'd at least gotten a few entries under my belt.  Tonight I finally finished up an entry started some time back -- one whose subject matters I've been mulling over for quite some time: 10 Great Classic Metal Bassists: What Makes for Greatness?

I'm not entirely sure just what I intend to do with that blog -- I'm still in an experimental stage with it, where I allow myself to write about what catches my interest or presses me to think about it, even if perhaps it's not as explicitly philosophical as the name would imply.  It's not the first writing I've done motivated by my passionate attachments to heavy metal -- I've written a few pieces previously here in Orexis Dianoētikē:
It seemed to me time to start working out these lines of thinking in a more systematic and expansive sort of manner and forum.  So, there it is. . . .

Oct 15, 2013

Aristotle on Anger, Justice, and Injustice

Last weekend, I attended the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy conference, chaired two sessions, met a number of scholars as interested and enthusiastic about the thought of antiquity as I am, and gave the paper which I'd long ago proposed, "Aristotle on Anger, Justice, and Injustice."  Or rather, I presented the paper in a summary form -- I was assigned to a panel of four speakers, and each of us got about 20 minutes to set out the main lines of our research.

It wasn't a venue particularly conducive to recording the session in my typical manner -- a flipcam which could capture video of the talk.  But I did manage to record my portion of the talk, and the relevant Q&A on my iPhone, and then (after clawing my frustrated way up the learning curve any former PC user has with Apple's products!) turned the edited recording into a podcast, which you can hear here, if this topic particularly interests you



Oct 6, 2013

Virtue Ethics Digest: Are The Virtues Already In Us?

Over in one of my other blogs, Virtue Ethics Digest, I've got a recent set of reflections spurred by a certain misreading or misunderstanding which I see consistently appearing in certain of my students' papers, Are The Virtues Already In Us?  It represents what seems to me a characteristically late modern manner of getting virtue (and thereby also vice, moral development, decision, and a number of other key concepts in moral theory) wrong.  Here's a brief excerpt:
The kind of mistake I'm referring to, in its simplest, most bare bones form, runs like this:  The specific virtues are traits or capabilities any given human being already possesses, and in any given situation he or she needs simply to use their virtues to choose and act well.  So, there's really two claims being asserted, or more often, simply assumed on the part of the student.  Human beings already have the virtues.  And, whatever these virtues are, one just needs to use them.

Oct 2, 2013

Violence Over Kant Interpretation?

The story from Rostov-on-Don last month is the sort of incongruous verging on comedy that, as the saying goes "you just can't make up" -- or at least not easily -- since nobody who has seriously studied the moral theory of Immanuel Kant would think to associate his work and thought with the sort of disagreement that would turn nakedly violent.  And yet, there they were, the headlines.

You've got the straightforward and succinct Reuter's story: Man shot in Russia in Argument over Kant.  The more cheeky Guardian story: Unreasonable critique of Kant leads to man being shot in Russian shop.  Time's wince-worthy pun: “You Kant Say That!” Philosophical Debate Leads to Shooting.  Huffington Post displays the alarmist anti-intellectualism always lurking just below their superficiality: Philosophy Is Dangerous! Immanuel Kant Debate In Russia Leads To Fist Fight, Ends In Gunshot.  We could go on multiplying examples.  I'd rather muse a bit about why this was and remains such an interestingly, even sublimely strange story.

Sep 25, 2013

Symposia, Then and Now

Some time back, it was proposed to me to give a talk of some sort for students at the Culinary Institute of America's Feasting and Foraging event, a day devoted to discussion, demonstration, and even some experiential learning focused on ancient ways of food production and everything that went with that.  I brainstormed through several topics that might fit the overall theme -- Aristotle's discussion of modes of food production and the ways of life they make possible, the still-controversial thesis that fermentation of alcoholic beverages was a major motive for early agriculture. . . . and then decided to propose a talk about drinking parties -- symposia -- a term which we now associate with rather stolid, well-organized, academic affairs.

I proposed, they accepted, and then fortuitously things came together -- one of the instructors at the culinary, a specialist in the history of alcoholic beverages -- had decided to brew up a batch of hard apple-maple cider, and it was determined that we would have a bit of a "drinking-party" (in which the of-age students could participate).  Towards the end of the day, we'd all gather, there'd be a tasting (well, more than simply a tasting, since there turned out to be enough cider for everyone to have several small glasses), and I'd give a fairly informal, interactive talk focusing on what Greek symposia were really like, and contrasting our present-day, academic symposium with the ancient symposium.

Aug 29, 2013

Elements of Philosophy: What Do Philosophers Do?

 A new academic year has commenced, and I'm currently in process of producing some new lesson content for my Introduction to Philosophy students -- which this semester is themed on "Love, Friendship, and Desire.  Right now, its the very most introductory material for the class that I am writing and posting as lessons in our course management system.  Since I don't use a textbook for the class, but rather supply all the readings, resources, lessons, videos, and other sundries for the class within that course shell, it's critical that I provide these undergraduate, non-major students, many of them first-semester freshmen, with some idea early on just what the class is about -- what kind of approach we are taking, what kinds of activities we are engaged in, what sorts of tools we employ.

So, in addition to a number of other similar lesson sections -- some already (thankfully!) written, some of them still pressing items of my to-do list -- I decided to try my hand at explaining what we philosophers (and those who we're reading and studying) actually do, by way of discussing some of our most common tools -- the "elements," if you like, of philosophical work and works.  After I was finished with it, I thought that others might find it interesting or useful -- or perhaps glimpse better than I any glaring omissions or oversights.  So, if you've got something to add to this, by all means feel free to set it down in a comment, and I may incorporate it in a revised version of the online lesson.

Aug 23, 2013

Second Radio Interview: Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law

Invited back to Theology Matters with the Pellews -- the idea being that I might start doing more or less regular guest spots focused on key Christian (and also atheist) thinkers of the past -- I proposed that my discussion this time focus on Thomas Aquinas and his conception of Natural Law.  Not just Natural Law by itself, in isolation, though, but understood in conjunction with several other key conceptions of laws in Thomas' thought, namely, Eternal Law, Divine Law, and Human Law.

The original date had to be shifted from early August to later on in the month, due to some computer issues on the end of the show, which prefigured a few technical difficulties that occurred during the second portion of the actual show.  Overall though, it seems -- going by listener responses -- to have been a good show.  Given my somewhat perfectionist tendencies, the fact that I was one of the speakers, and the sort of "professional blinders" that being an expert in the field inevitably brings, I'm not a good judge of these sorts of matters -- how well the presentation, the dialogue, the interaction actually illuminated Thomas thought for the non-philosopher listening in.

If you'd like to listen to -- or download -- the full podcast of the show, you can do so by clicking here.

Jul 31, 2013

Inserting Anselm into Alasdair MacIntyre's Narrative of Medieval Thought

I recently gave a talk -- partly reading, partly summarizing, and partly promising parts yet unwritten of a paper about Alasdair MacIntyre, Saint Anselm of Canterbury (or Bec, or Aosta, depending on where you're from) and medieval moral theory.




My contention -- a friendly one -- is that MacIntyre's account of what took place in that period we call "medieval" would be considerably improved by incorporation of a fuller picture of Anselm's formation and contributions to an ongoing tradition of moral enquiry.  MacIntyre calls this "Augustinian", but it is really much broader -- and older -- than the properly augustinian tradition in philosophy or theology.

I think what I'm trying to fix in this paper is encapsulated in one remark:  MacIntyre's account of Anselm is precisely what one might expect from a reading that focuses exclusively upon the Proslogion and upon Thomas Aquinas' references to Anselm's theory of truth.  Accordingly, my aim is to show, mainly by way of exposition, that Anselm's contributions lay in moral theory as well -- and to set out his influences upon Aquinas as an interlocutor.