Søren Kierkegaard and Hubert Dreyfus on Social Media

Back in 1997, UC Berkeley philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus offered a diagnosis of the World Wide Web that, in retrospect, predicted with virtually 100 percent accuracy our socially networked democracy’s current predicament. Remarkably, he did this by applying to the Web as it was then an analysis of “the Press” and “the Public” worked out by Søren Kierkegaard in 1846. (See Kierkegaard’s The Present Age.)

Like so many of his colleagues and friends, I was interested in what Bert had to say about anything, and heard him present these views at the time. They eventually appeared in 2001 his On the Internet, which was revised and expanded in 2007 – still too early to understand the impact of social media. Although the book was well-reviewed, it didn’t (so far as I knew) elicit a sustained response, and as the years went by Bert’s reworking of Kierkegaard’s analysis slipped my mind. Recently, though, almost by accident, I ran into the transcript of a lecture he gave on the topic.

Kierkegaard, Bert began, was skeptical of what political philosophers and theorists of democracy call the public sphere. The public “took an interest in everything but were not committed to anything. [Kierkegaard] attributed this growing cultivation of curiosity and the consequent failure to distinguish the important from the trivial to the Press. Its new massive distribution of desituated information, he held, was making every sort of information immediately available to anyone, thereby producing an anonymous, detached spectator.” Continue reading

Truthfulness and Realism: Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

I’ve been teaching a course on philosophy and film. As it nears the end, I’m thinking about films that didn’t make it into the course but that could have and perhaps should have. This version of the course (I’ve taught it a few times) focused on the problem of identity and moral personhood: numerical identity in Inception and Solaris, for example, and differences between persons and what Harry Frankfurt calls “wantons” in A Clockwork OrangeThe Servant, and Vertigo, among others. We tended to focus more on content than form, but we were never very far from issues of truth, reality, and the art of film.  

Which made me want to identify films that bring these epistemological and ontological themes in both life and art together with personhood. In the films of Stanley Kubrick, there’s something of a dialectic between truthfulness and realism. Realism can reveal truth but also obscure it, and be obscured by it. And “realistic” isn’t the right word for the film I have in mind; “truthful” is closer to the mark. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) portrays intimate personal relationships truthfully. What does that mean?

The film is about a couple, Alice and Bill, who, although they’ve been married at least seven years, still seem to be adjusting to the transition from passionate love to a companionate marriage. When we first see them, as they are preparing to leave for a Christmas party, they are very much in the companionate mode: intimate and trusting, but something less than passionate. Continue reading

The Futures of Political Philosophy

An undergraduate lecture.

What is the status of the tradition of political philosophy? How do we stand in relation to it? What authority does it have for us? Is it a living tradition, or only an object of scholarly inquiry? What can it offer us as we try to make sense of the challenges we face today?

In a narrow sense a tradition is a literature: a canon of texts that have passed the test of time. In a wider sense, a tradition is a network of broadly shared beliefs, values, and dispositions – a common language by means of which we communicate to one another our individual perspectives on the events taking place in the world we share.

In the narrow sense, the tradition includes Locke’s argument in the Second Treatise of Government that there’s no unambiguous biological feature that confers a right to rule on those who possess it and denies that right to those who don’t. In the wider sense, the tradition is what makes it possible for someone who expresses an opinion premised on Locke’s argument to expect a hearing, because Locke’s premise is widely regarded as material to political debate. For example, the argument that the mere fact of being female doesn’t justify preventing women from practicing certain professions can’t be dismissed out of hand, because everyone understands the form of the argument, namely its reliance on the premise that no arbitrary biological feature can be the basis for the distribution of rights.

A tradition is selective, emphasizing continuity and de-emphasizing discontinuity by presenting innovations as extensions, reinterpretations, or criticisms of its core themes and commitments. A tradition is evaluative, singling out what is important to remember and passing over what is not exemplary or illustrative. A tradition is relevant and useful, implicitly claiming that the knowledge it preserves and transmits is essential to understanding issues and events in the contemporary world. A tradition includes interpretations of itself, narratives that articulate the meaning, structure, development, and application of the tradition. Finally, a tradition is, or can be, authoritative. Continue reading

What are the pros and cons of John Locke’s political philosophy?

Pro: The principle of consent provides a universal standard for evaluating the legitimacy of political regimes.

Contra: The theory of property doesn’t make much sense.

The idea that government should be based on the consent of the governed stems from the idea that human beings are free. Because freedom is foundational, freely given consent is the only thing that could legitimize political rule. That we are free, and have rights, are natural facts about human beings, not statuses conferred by governments or societies. Even governments that do not acknowledge human rights, therefore, can be criticized for their refusal to do so.

The principle of consent says that someone may do something to you only if they have your permission to do so. Express consent is freely, knowingly, openly, and explicitly given. But most people have not expressly consented to their government, from which it would appear to follow that no government is legitimate. Locke’s solution to this problem is his doctrine of tacit consent: merely by living in a society, he says, people are implicitly or tacitly consenting to its laws.

This might be taken to imply that “consent” means something like “not unwilling.” Is that robust enough for something as important as political legitimacy? If I visit Cuba, I am presumably not unwilling to obey its laws. Does that mean I regard Communism as a legitimate form of government? Continue reading

Time Travel and Temporalizing in Chris Marker’s “La Jetée”

Knowingly or not, Chris Marker’s metaphorical use of time travel in Ja Jetée (1963) elegantly exhibits Heidegger’s view that the human way of being is temporalizing. And it directs our attention to a phenomenon that is central to Heidegger’s argument in Being and Time, namely that temporality is the fundamental condition of intelligibility as such.

For Heidegger, the distinctively human way of being (“Dasein”) consists in making sense of things. We do this, he says, because things matter to us, and they matter to us because they make sense. To make sense of something is to take it as a certain thing – for example, as a tool, say a hammer, with a certain use (hammering), connections with other tools (nails, planks of wood), and connections with various ways of being (being a carpenter, being a handyman).

Intelligibility – that something is “disclosed” as something – depends on what Heidegger calls “finitude,” which is a characteristic of human temporality. Things show up to us as X rather than Y or Z; to take a hammer as a tool for hammering is to not take it as a paperweight (as we might do under certain circumstances). To exercise any given possibility of being is to refrain from exercising many others. If we were not finite, all of our possibilities would be accessible to us at all times, nothing would matter more or less than anything else, and there would be nothing to disclose because everything would be disclosed. Temporality and finitude thus go together as the possibility conditions of intelligibility, and because finitude is exhibited in mortality, it may be said that death gives life meaning. Continue reading

What Did Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky Disagree About?

I had an opportunity a while back, in the course of answering a Quora question, to revisit the legendary Foucault-Chomsky debate.

Their fundamental disagreement stemmed from the fact that at the time of the debate Foucault was something between a moral relativist and a nihilist, whereas Chomsky was (and is) a moral realist. The question is: What motivated Foucault to adopt such an extreme and untenable position? I don’t believe he would have expressed such nihilistic views in the last several years leading up to his death.

I’ll have something to say about motivation towards the end of the post.

Much of what Foucault says in the debate could be taken as a defense of moral relativism, which of course is a perfectly respectable position. The moral relativist believes that moral principles are relative to some group, such as a society or a class. In some past societies,  apparently, it was true and right that a widow should be burned to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, but in other societies it was true and right that this should not be done. There are no universal or objective moral principles such that it could be true to say of everyone, everywhere that widows shouldn’t (or should) be burned.

As a corollary to the thesis that morality is relative to a group, the moral relativist denies that there are moral facts. There are only social expectations, values, practices, and facts about them. So it would not be true to say of Betty, who promised Sue that she would meet her for lunch today, that she is obligated to do so in the sense that she should keep her promise because that is the right thing to do. Betty’s belief that she should keep her promise is a fact about her and her society, not about morality.

I doubt Foucault ever entertained such thoughts about moral relativism in this form, but some of what he says in the conversation sounds as if he did. For example, Foucault argues that the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat” each has its own distinctive morality and that what is true and right for one isn’t necessarily true and right for the other. Continue reading

Michael Oakeshott, Susan Wolf, Conversation, and Louis Malle’s “My Dinner with André.”

Some characterizations of My Dinner with André1.

Wally feels obligated to dine with André but dreads it because he has heard that André is deeply troubled and feels there is nothing he can do to help. Wally is also overwhelmed by the pressures of practical life: he can’t do anything but worry about how he will pay his bills. He settles on a solution to his immediate problem: he’ll merely ask questions of André, something he enjoys doing. That works, but in the course of his dinner with André something more happens: the meal ends with Wally a little less overwhelmed than he was when it began.

André wants to live each moment as intensely as possible, but he seems to think that this requires him to eschew any sense of a quest for larger, objective value. Wally, on the other hand, indicates that he values stable and committed relationships and his contributions, however small, to the theater, and expresses an identification with the scientific enterprise and so with a central narrative tradition of Western Civilization. But he doesn’t find many moments of passionate intensity in his day-to-day life, which, in contrast to André’s, seems to have isolated him from others. The film, narrated from Wally’s point of view, conveys his renewed appreciation for the quality of immediate experience for those with whom he shares his world. On his way home after dinner he’s noticeably more attentive to what his city means to him, and he resolves to share his experience with his girlfriend Debby.

André and Wally have different views about the meaning of life. André wants to live each moment as intensely as possible and believes that he can accomplish this by undergoing extreme experiences. Wally values stable relationships and commitments and takes pleasure accomplishing the everyday tasks they require, hoping also to occasionally contribute to the theater. As the film begins, however, Wally doesn’t take any pleasure in ordinary life and doesn’t have time to contribute to the theater. André is passionately engaged with his activities, but they don’t seem to make sense to anyone but him. Wally’s values and aims are perfectly intelligible, but he doesn’t find them fulfilling. As he listens to André’s exotic stories, Wally realizes how much he loves his life and he reminds himself of this on his way home. We’re left wondering about whether the conversation has had an impact on André. Continue reading

Plato’s “Totalitarian” State

I spent a few months re-reading Plato’s Republic with two friends, one a mathematician and the other a writer of fiction. I’ll write in due course about the mathematical and literary issues that arose; they were the most interesting topics we found. But it was necessary at first to get past some political hurdles. One of them was what might be called the ghost of Karl Popper and his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

In it Popper associates fascism and totalitarianism – ideologies that yield what he calls “closed societies” – with some ideas that are ultimately traceable to Plato (and to an extent to Aristotle, whom Popper also subjects to a lot of criticism): holism, essentialsm, and historicism.

Holism, roughly, is the idea that the whole is prior to the parts, that the parts depend on the whole, and that the function of the parts is to constitute the whole. As applied to political theory, this means that state is prior to the individuals in it and that the latter exist to serve the former.

According to Popper, this doctrine is expressed in Plato’s concept of justice, namely a well-functioning state. In Plato’s ideal city, everyone contributes to the state in ways to which they are best suited.

Essentialism is the idea that knowledge consists of an understanding of the unchanging and often hidden reality that is responsible for what we seem to observe in the empirical world. This is Plato’s idea of the Forms, which are discovered by rational inquiry not empirical observation. Continue reading

Judith Butler’s Category Mistake

I respect Judith Butler – however, amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas.

The claim that sexual differences, and the body generally, as well as agency or personhood, are “socially constructed” is incoherent and misleading. On the contrary, it seems virtually self-evident that sexual differences (and many other features of the body) are not social constructs.

A subsidiary thesis is that the mechanism by which social construction takes place is “power,” and that seems dubious as well. Surely a great deal of social construction takes the form of interactions that are entirely voluntary and mutually beneficial.

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Are we living in Deleuze’s society of control?

Many years ago, on a drive from Berlin to Paris, I found myself talking with an official at the French border. I don’t recall precisely what we had to discuss, but after a brief conversation he tried to express himself in English to inform me that I could enter the country. “I will control you,” he said.

He meant both that he would examine my passport, and see to it that I got across the border. This double sense of contrôle is relevant to Deleuze’s picture of a “post-disciplinary” society.

It’s a world that depends on a constant flow of people, information, commodities, and capital from one part of the planet to another. Controls of various kinds – institutional, electronic, pharmaceutical, and educational – are designed to facilitate the flow, not to inhibit it. The infrastructure invites and encourage individuals – or dividuals, as Deleuze christens them – to divide and distribute their time, skills, and attention among the many different corporate and state enterprises that float freely over the streams, vectors, platforms, channels, and interfaces.

The flow never stops, and there is nowhere that flows do not penetrate. Everything in society bears down on you at once, all the time, and everywhere, although you are apparently bringing this on yourself.

Deleuze was a brilliant philosopher, and that’s putting it too mildly. But his political and social thinking was not of the same caliber as his metaphysics.

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