Oct 26, 2014

The "Glimpses into Existence" Series So Far

Last night, I wrote a short post about a Simone de Beauvoir talk in one of my other more specialized blogs, Sadler's Existentialism Updates (SEU) -- an electronic forum originally intended for me to set down ideas about the online course on Existentialist Philosophy and Literature which I was (and admittedly still am) developing.  There's an interesting story to be told about that, of course, but it's already available over there on SEU, so no sense reposting it here -- at least not until I've actually got a course up and running.

Instead, I'd like to write a bit about the monthly series of talks on Existentialism -- the recent de Beauvoir talk being the tenth session -- that I've been providing at the Kingston Library this year.  We decided to call the talks "Glimpses into Existence," since each session would introduce a general, library-going (so educated and interested) audience to some of the main works, key ideas, and contributions, as well as the times and cultural setting of one important Existentialist thinker.  Devoting one-and-a-half to two hours of discussions to thinkers like Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Rilke, or Sartre -- well, that really is just a glimpse into their thoughts, writings, and lives.

It's been an interesting and enjoyable project, as well as one from which I've learned quite a bit over the last ten months -- and I've been thinking quite a bit about what those lessons are, and what their implications might be for the future, about which I'll write more in a moment.  Before that, I'd like to post a set of links.

The Glimpses into Existence Videos

Since we recorded these sessions, the series has also generated a gradually growing playlist of videos.  Very few of the people who regularly follow or subscribe to me on my various social media -- let alone my YouTube viewership (we're now past 15,000 subscribers) -- can make it to a physical site like the Kingston Library, so this lets them enjoy the lecture and discussion, at least as spectators who can them weigh in with comments.

Here's the video sequence available so far (I'll update this post as the last two get recorded and uploaded these coming two months):


Once the entire series has been filmed, we'll also turn them into a set of 12 podcasts as well.

Some Interesting Lessons about Popularizing Philosophy

In addition to doing the sorts of activities you can typically expect out of college professors who actually enjoy their job -- teaching students enrolled in classes, writing papers in one's areas of academic research, presenting them at conferences and (hopefully) securing them some settled form in publications, and the occasional invited lecture to faculty or students at another school -- for quite some time, I've also engaged in philosophical activity in more public and popular modes, ranging from blogging to shooting videos, from radio interviews and appearances to giving talks and workshops.

In the past, although I'd often get invited back to a venue, those talks and workshops would usually be "stand-alone," so to speak -- not part of a larger, connected series or course.  The only exceptions up to this point would be some of the inmate-organized summer seminars I provided to inmate students at Indiana State Prison back in 2005, 2006, and 2007. 

I'd wondered how well a series of connected lectures would actually work under the aegis of an institution like a public library.  Would local resident really be interested in attending an entire year worth of lectures, or would that be a bit much?  Could a series like the one I had in mind cumulatively develop key themes of a movement, if people mainly participated in them a la carte, you might say?

As it turned out, over the months, a group of fairly regular lecture-goers did coalesce around the series -- some people coming in, some going out, some showing up for nearly every session.  So, that lesson's learned -- basically, when it comes to philosophy-focused content, if you do build it, and people feel that it has something to offer them, they will indeed come. . .  and keep coming.  We've learned a few other important things as well -- arriving by trial and error, mistakes and reflections -- that we'll be applying to lecture and workshop series in the next few years.

One of these simply reinforces what I'd already long come to suspect and then articulate, based on the popularity of my long, low-tech philosophy-focused YouTube videos:  there is a widespread and palpable hunger out there in our culture for genuine intellectual engagement.  If you know what you're talking about -- and care passionately about it -- and if you can communicate about it in ways that non-specialists can understand and appreciate, there is a vast pool of people who are interested in and ready to listen, think, and discuss.  For the most part, the school systems, the entertainment industry, and the broader culture in general are simply not supplying real intellectual engagement.  So, if you are willing to do so, people will come and tune in.

Of course, they have to know its available -- and that's another important lesson.  We're fortunate that people look at the event posters as they walk through the library, that a few local public announcement sites picked up our information, and that participants in the early lectures gave us good word of mouth, because we really didn't do much as far as publicizing events goes.  I did create notices and descriptions on my social medial sites -- mainly on Facebook and Google+, but given the non-localized nature of those networks, they didn't draw any physical bodies in seats.

On the other hand -- and here's a last lesson about popularizing philosophy -- what posting those events out there in cyberspace did accomplish was to get a much wider range of people interested in those talks, their topics, even the thinkers upon whom they focus.  They were then primed to take a look at the videorecordings of the sessions, and to keep watching if they were enjoyable, engaging, or interesting enough -- and then perhaps to watch more of the series, going back to videos from past months, looking ahead to new videos coming in future months. 

When you think about it, the talks attain a sort of permanence precisely because they've been video-recorded and uploaded into a service like YouTube.  Participants who came to more recent talks and who expressed disappointment they'd missed the earlier ones could simply be directed to videos of the earlier ones.  It's not unimaginable that students and lifelong learners might start perusing the series a decade from now -- though that's a good reminded for me that I really ought to start adding useful resources to those relatively bare-bones videos!

Oct 16, 2014

Six Senses of Justice in Saint Anselm's Thought.

Last weekend, down in Washington D.C., I read a paper and got involved in some very interesting and provocative discussion on the borderlines between philosophy and theology.  The American Catholic Philosophical Association -- one of my old haunts in an earlier academic life (I'd not been there since 2008) -- includes a great variety of what are called "satellite sessions."  Many of these are in fact meetings of other scholarly organizations and institutions whose membership overlaps partly with the ACPA, and one of those, with which I have a longstanding and particularly close personal connection, is the Institute for Saint Anselm Studies.

This year, the Institute hosted a panel focused specifically on one of Anselm's greatest works, the Cur Deus Homo - or Why God Became Man.  One of the issues about which I've been thinking for quite some time, and particularly in light of St. Anselm's thought and writings, is the relationship between divine mercy and justice.  So, when the opportunity presented itself to become the third interlocutor on the panel, I gladly put myself forward, and the Institute accepted.  The paper that I presented -- which is still in rather unpolished state (I'll post it once I've added the requisite footnotes and transitions) -- was titled "Is God's Justice Unmerciful in St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo?"  You can listen to the paper, my responses to questions and comments, and the general discussion (after all three papers had been read) in this podcast, if you like.  What I'd like to do here is to take up a related topic that I inserted into a footnote of the paper and touched upon in the Q&A -- the differing senses of "justice" in Anselm's thought.

Sep 29, 2014

Musings About Platonic Virtues and Forms

Last week, I traveled down to Felician College in northern New Jersey to give a talk, or more specifically, a current research workshop session, hosted by the Felician Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs -- "Just What is A Platonic Virtue?" (video of the talk and discussion is available here)

This is a topic about which I've been thinking for quite some time, and intending eventually to write an article, so given an opportunity to present my current reflections on the topic to an audience of interested philosophy majors and professional colleagues -- the latter of whom I could count on to know Plato's texts and key ideas well -- I was very happy to come down, lay out the problematic as I had come to envision it, and get some useful feedback from my peers.

Sep 3, 2014

The Iron Law of Ochlocracy (part 2)

A bit tongue-in-cheekily, about a week and a half ago, I coined a neologism - the Iron Law of Ocholcracy - to describe a dynamic which contemporary Marxist theorist, Michael Hardt, outlined in his recent talk at European Graduate School.  Hardt was speculating about two main topics, both having to do with a perceived dearth of emergent and identifiable leadership among recent leftist "leaderless movements."

One of these is the question why leaders aren't emerging -- a question that he noted could be answered partly by the abilities of external forces to eliminate or co-opt apparent "leaders", but whose deeper answer he sought in the very workings, ideals, and ideologies of the groups and movements.  Another is whether this constitutes a real problem or not -- is it a bad thing or a good thing, all told, even when taking into account concerns of effectiveness and continuity, to seemingly dispense with leadership and all that it entails?

Aug 26, 2014

SEU: Freedom, Choice, and Success: What Is The Existentialist Stance?

Since I use Orexis Dianoētikē as a nexus knotting together intellectual threads from my other, more specifically focused blogs, I'm doing that in this entry -- calling attention to a 2-part discussion about existentialism, freedom, choice, and the success of the projects and commitments of a person. Here's part 1 and part 2.

We veered off into a discussion about the ways some people connect up radical human freedom (which existentialists do affirm) with personal responsibility for producing one's success or failure (not something existentialists think we have entire control over) during my latest talk, on Franz Kafka, in the Glimpses of Existence monthly lecture series hosted by the Kingston Library. 

My view is that there is a kind of solipsism lurking within the claim that, because a person is free, they can make their destiny or fate simply by willing, desiring, or choosing -- that would be true, were solipsism, the view that one is really the only acting, real person in the world, true.  But, we inhabit a world equally inhabited by others, who are also free -- indeed a world shaped mysteriously (and often frustratingly!) by other people's use of their own radical freedom (which in its turn is conditioned by still others, and others. . . )

Aug 22, 2014

The Iron Law of Ochlocracy (part 1)

This last week, with the exception of the night of my birthday, I've been attending a nightly series of stimulating lectures -- one of the benefits of being accorded Visiting Scholar status at European Graduate school this year -- one of which was delivered by Michael Hardt, probably best known outside of progressive and revolutionary academic circles for his collaborative work, Empire (with Antonio Negri).

Hardt used the lecture as an opportunity to set out a project he has been working on, but has not yet consolidated into a fully polished form.  The central question or problem was that of leadership among non-party, often-marginal, but revolutionary and radically democratic "leaderless movements," Occupy being the one most familiar to us Americans, but comprising a number of different, usually rather transient, and only occasionally effective movements worldwide over the last two decades or so. 

Aug 18, 2014

Hello Again From Saas-Fee!

A bit under a year ago, I decided to put my blogging endeavors on hold -- announced in the post just below this one -- including this one, my oldest blog.  It has indeed been a year packed with projects and opportunities, changes and events. 

The medium in which I've done the most work in that time -- outside of the interactions of the classroom and course management system -- has been video, specifically producing, releasing, and curating mainly philosophy-related videos in my YouTube channel.  But, I've also been engaged in considerably more public speaking, brought into interesting conversations as a consultant, and even found some time for working on a few articles and book chapters.  At Google's invitation, I began offering 1-on-1 video Helpout sessions.   I also became certified by the American Philosophical Practioner's Association in philosophical counseling -- something I'd found myself doing occasionally in less formal and structured ways for years -- and am now in process of developing a practice, based physically in the Hudson Valley, but virtually able to engage clients nearly anywhere in the world.

As exciting as everything has been, I've missed getting to do the kind of writing -- as well as resource development -- that the rather over-ambitiously rolled out blogs of the past afforded me chances to work on.  So, as my 44th birthday, and along with it this trip over the Atlantic and across the Alps, approached, I decided it was time to start contributing to those electronic forums again -- as well as to reconsider and streamline their designs. 

Sadler's Existentialist Updates needed attending to first, since I've been doing a lot of lecturing and course development precisely on that philosophical movement -- and after redesigning it in minor ways, I started writing again -- and, after a hiatus of ten months, it felt great to post content again!  I also realized that I'd actually need to create another new blog, Half Hour Hegel, sooner than later in order to organize the video content of an ongoing, probably 3-year-to-complete series of a (projected) 250 to 300 videos working methodically through G.W.F. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.  So I did it.

The question was then which blog to start work on next.  I'd hoped by this birthday I might find enough time to restart another blog that I had "given" myself  as a kind of birthday present last year, Heavy Metal Philosopher -- and I am looking forward to getting to write again in that one soon.  But, given the time that was available to me, it seemed to me that this one -- my longest running, my first, my most comprehensive site -- was really the one to refurbish and restart today.

As I write this, I'm high up in the Swiss Alps, in Saas-Fee, where European Graduate School has its campus, and where they are holding intensive classes and hosting lectures, taught by some of the cutting-edge theorists and practitioners of continental philosophy -- a program in which my wife and collaborator is enrolled.  I'm here for her last week, attending some of the lectures, meeting and conversing with some of the students and professors, traipsing around the narrow mountain streets, gaping like a tourist up at the massive, snow-brilliant peaks, slowly recollecting enough of my German to get by in the shops, and doing some work of my own -- a bit of writing, shooting some video footage, and . . . well, this!

So I'll be back to using this as my sounding-board for ideas I'm working out or working on, occasional reflections on perennial matters spurred by current events, and for mentioning some of the other projects I've got going on, when there's something to say about them.  There's a lot of forward movement, as they say, but that almost appears to require time as its fuel or compensation.  Given the degree to which I'm finding those days, hours, and minutes allotted, demanded, parceled out, I expect I'm going to have to write in a somewhat less polished -- some might say, laborious -- style than that I've indulged myself in here during past years.  But, perhaps that's all to the good . . .

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. . . .