Feb 18, 2019

Eight Videos On Blaise Pascal's Pensées

Some time back, I decided to shoot some core concept videos on one of my favorite books of philosophy, Blaise Pascal's unfinished but brilliant work, the Pensées.  It's a work that I first encountered back in graduate school, and have often drawn upon, but don't often have a pretext to teach (perhaps I should find one!) in my classes.

The Pensées is a pretty lengthy and quite complex work, so what I've done in these seven videos is in some respects just scratching the surface.  Some of the ideas and arguments, though, are among those Pascal is best remembered for.  I hope eventually to return to the text and produce a number of additional videos covering key ideas and distinctions in it.

For the time being, here are those eight videos

Feb 17, 2019

Stoicism, Self-Control, and Optimizing One's Environment

Natasha Brown - someone I've enjoyed interacting with both in person (at Stoicon last year), and virtually (much more often) - raised an issue well worth reflecting upon and discussing in a post in the Facebook Stoicism group earlier today. 
The Stoic virtue of self-control has been the one I’ve found consistently most difficult. Whether it’s continuing long-term exercise, eating healthily & so on. 
I’m reading James Clear’s book ‘Atomic Habits’. He argues self-control isn’t sustainable & rather we should seek to modify our environment to make it easier/more difficult to perform certain tasks. He says “make the cues of your good habits easier & the cues of your bad habits invisible”. Thus, stimulating the desired behaviour. Thoughts??
There is a good bit of back and forth conversation about the matter.  Some of it is concerned with the contention that "self-control" has its limits.  If that's true, then it seems that there might be some problems with classic Stoicism's consistent position that whether or not we develop or deploy self-control is really up to us.

It might seem, from a Stoic perspective, that making concessions to one's own limited self-control (or if you like "willpower") by changing one's environment rather than changing oneself, would be problematic. It represents a focus on externals, rather on what is really proper to oneself, matters outside of one's power rather than within one's power.  Shouldn't the Stoic strive to improve the strength of their ruling faculty and to develop the virtues (particularly temperance and fortitude), instead of making things easier on themselves by reducing challenges, frustrations, and distractions in their surroundings?

In my view, so long as one is not attempting to simply substitute managing one's environment (to minimize its problematic elements) in place of consistent use of Stoic practices, there's nothing wrong with this.  In fact, one could argue that it is actually an exercise of prudence to develop insight into where one is likely to hit one's current limits of patience, endurance, capacity to resist temptations, or the like, and then to reshape one's environment in ways that make it less likely that one will hit that failure-point.

Stoicism - like any form of intentional living properly understood - works with people where they are.  Most of us not only fall short of being the "sage" or ideal wise person, who presumably would withstand any temptation or frustration. We also tend to be a mess in many respects, or if you prefer more optimistic language a "work in progress".  If you're trying to improve your character, you labor at it as best you can, and get a little better day by day.  If for the time being, you remove obstacles to your moral progress from your surroundings, that might help you stay on track. 

The last thing to say about this, of course, is that one's environment remains within that domain that Stoics rightly consider outside of our control. So it would be quite counterproductive to get too invested in managing it, whatever one's intentions are in doing so. 

Feb 15, 2019

Long Post Sum-Up: Don't Give Time to Jerks

As I move Orexis Dianoētikē away from longer essays, I'm shifting that writing activity to other platforms.  

These include Medium, where I published a post earlier today, Don’t Give Them Time.  It's the first in what will be a series of posts on dealing with (you almost think) deliberately difficult, and downright jerkish people in the online world.

Since this blog is now intended for updates and shorter pieces, what I'll do when I publish a longer piece is either summarize or excerpt from it here.  So, here's a passage from the crux of the essay.

[T]his is just the start of my setting down my thoughts about these matters, so I haven’t got some comprehensive, systematically worked out, debated-with-the-decent take on all of this. I do, however, have one main insight about how to handle the contentious, the tendentious, the “debate me bro!” types. 
Jerks don’t get time. 
Or if they do get time, it’s the minimum possible. 
When they do get it, time allotted to them comes after others get attended to.

The basic idea is that all too often, those of us who are devoted to online engagement in substantive conversations get suckered into the idea that we somehow owe our time (and thought, and attention, and emotions, and. . . ) to anyone who happens to come along. 

We don't.  And time is a resource that not only is always in short supply, but that we ought to devote to those who deserve it more than online jerks.  I've been making that a practice, and I'm finding it quite a useful strategy for properly using my time.

Feb 14, 2019

Five Videos on Anselm's Proslogion

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I have been creating new core concept videos for students enrolled in my college classes this semester.  So far I've released several new series, links to which are below.

One of the texts we are covering in its entirety in my Marquette classes, and just in part in my MATC class, is Anselm of Canterbury's short work, the Proslogion.  I created five new core concept videos covering some of the main aspects and arguments in that work (which is, according to Anselm, one long single "argument").  I hope to get to some additional videos on this work later on down the line, covering some of the other issues examined in the text.

Anselm is relatively poorly know and not all that often read (if you like, you can read my IEP article on Anselm).  When he does get addressed by philosophers, it is usually the Proslogion to which they turn, and typically just chapter 2 (and sometimes 3 and 4), where Anselm sets out what has come to be called the "ontological argument for God's existence".  There's far more going on in that book, however, as you'll see if you read it, or even if you watch the videos below.

So here they are:

In the last few months, I have also created several other series of core concept videos, on other key philosophical texts.  You might find these interesting or helpful:

I'm in process of shooting a lot more video content, and you'll see more posts like these in the coming months.  We've got more Cicero coming up, as well as more Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, David Hume, Hannah Arendt, James Rachels, and Lawrence Kohlberg, to name a few.

If you'd like to support the work I do, creating these videos in my home studio, used by learners worldwide, consider becoming a Patreon supporter!

Feb 12, 2019

Easy Mistake To Make: Rematerializing The Platonic Ideal

This semester, I am teaching two key Platonic texts - the Meno in its entirety, and the Republic in relatively short parts - and using them both to introduce students to the notion of Platonic forms or ideas.  Or if you like, archetypes or models, after which all of the material things we encounter and take as being "real", are copied.

In the Platonic point of view, this entire "real world", the material tangible world of change and plurality we live out or lives in and take our bearings from, while not entirely false or unreal, is certainly not the most true or real.  There is something transcending it, an intelligible world - or perhaps better put, domain or realm (since the term "world" too easily lends itself to our picturing it as yet another world like this one!) - which we grasp not with our senses but through the highest faculties of our mind.

The Meno provides a useful introduction to the Platonic conception of form in more than one way.  Very early on, without naming it as such, we see Socrates asking Meno to direct him towards something like the form of virtue.  He both requires a definition that extends itself to every one of the possible examples.  And he critically examines Meno's progressive attempts to provide an adequate definition.  This is precisely what Platonic dialectic looks like, albeit in a bit of a "baby-steps" mode in that dialogue.

Socrates also brings in the notion of the Platonic forms as he outlines another key doctrine - that of knowledge as recollection.  We acquired the knowledge which we possess within ourselves - just waiting to be recalled or recollected - in a previous life, when we saw (or rather encountered) the forms.

I had a student ask me an interesting question about this earlier life that was quite revealing.  Was this a previous life, while the soul was in a different body?  I explained that, for Plato, that "life" in another body would be more or less the same as the current one.  It was the time "in between" - after leaving one formerly living and now dead body and entering a new body to give it life - when the soul would have encountered those forms and acquired that knowledge of them. 

What is looking at forms like when you haven't got any eyes?  Well, the seeing or even encountering, that's a metaphor for some sort of experience that would be of a purely intelligible order, when the soul grasps the forms.  That's tough to visualize, and it ought to be, because it's not something strictly speaking that would be properly grasped by visualizing it.  It's an almost inevitable temptation, to materialize the platonic ideal.

We can say something similar about how the allegory of the cave in Republic book 7 gets interpreted - but I'll pick up that thread tomorrow, in the next post.

Feb 10, 2019

My Students' Interest in Aristotle's Social Virtues

This semester I am teaching two sections of Foundations in Philosophy at Marquette University.  We are running through a number of texts and thinkers (you can read the list of them here), and among those are Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.  Because I added more Plato, we can't do quite so much from Aristotle, so we are giving the Ethics just three days.  

The first was devoted to books 1 and 2 - so teleology, happiness, and the nature of virtue.  Next class session, we're doing the first part of book 3, a bit of book 6, and parts of book 7 - so matters of moral responsibility, choice and deliberation, and the issue of weakness of will (akrasia).  Our most recent class session last week was devoted to books 3 and 4 - where Aristotle goes into depth in examining each of the virtues (except justice and practical wisdom) and their associated vices.

I created a poll for each class section in which the students could choose the three virtues they most wanted me to go over in class.  About 40% of my students participated, and the numbers weren't exactly the same from section to section.  But there was one interesting area of overlap.  Students were definitely interested in - and wanted to know more about - the "social virtues".

The three that Aristotle discusses that particularly have to do with our social existence and nature are found at the end of book 4.  They often get short shrift when people are presenting Aristotle's moral theory - if you run out of time, they tend to get skipped - but his focus upon them as distinctive virtues, irreducible to other moral dispositions, worthy of examination, discussion, and development - that's actually an important innovation on Aristotle's part.

What are these three virtues?  One of them is Truthfulness.  Not truthfulness or honesty in all matters - a good bit of that falls under the virtue of justice - but rather truthfulness about oneself, about who one is, what kind of person one is, one's value and achievements.

Another of these is Friendliness.  Not the same thing as friendship - that's discussed at considerable length in books 8 - but rather a broader disposition that one might show to more than just one's friends.  This one, it turns out, has to do with giving pain or pleasure to others, and participating in common activities.  It involves being able to set limits, but also join in to what one ought to.

And then there's Good Humor.  It's very interesting that Aristotle would single this out as a virtuous disposition.  But it makes good sense - as I pointed out to my class, one old (and not too bad) definition of human being is animal ridens, the animal that laughs.  Humor, comedy, and joking are an important dimension to human existence.

My students wanted to think through what Aristotle had to teach us about all three of these (and about Courage, Right Ambition, Generosity, and Good Temper).  Both classes gave the highest preference to Good Humor.  Quite interesting. . . 

Feb 9, 2019

AMA Session Coming Up Later Today

Each month, I hold an AMA - Ask Me Anything - session online for my viewers, subscribers, supporters, and other fans.

I'll be holding the next AMA for this month a bit later today, at 12:00 PM Central.  Here's the link for the session - you can set a reminder notification for it on that page.  If you have questions you'd like to ask me, make sure to get them in early on.  I'll keep the session open for an hour and a half, but we invariably end with a number of later-asked questions unanswered.

If you'd like to see any of the previous AMA sessions, here is the list of all of the ones we've held so far.  I expect there's probably the answers to several hundred questions in there.

Ask Me Anything Session 1 - September 2017
Ask Me Anything Session 2 - December 2017
Ask Me Anything Session 3 - January 2018
Ask Me Anything Session 4 - February 2018
Ask Me Anything Session 5 - March 2018
Ask Me Anything Session 6 - April 2018
Ask Me Anything Session 7 - May 2018

All the time and labor involved in these - and many other - free online events are underwritten by my Patreon supporters. Their pledges help me earn a living for myself and my family doing work I love - making philosophy accessible to people of all walks of life, all over the world. If you'd like to become a supporter, here's where you can do that.