Jacques Derrida – Nihilist?

Derrida was certainly accused of nihilism. When “deconstruction” surprisingly made the mainstream news in the late 1970s and early 80s this was a commonly heard charge. I recall laughing with friends when Time (or was it Newsweek?) ran a picture of Derrida’s fellow-deconstructor Paul de Man above the label “nihilist,” presented as straightforwardly as if he were being identified as a Democrat or a Republican.

Why were Derrida and deconstruction newsworthy? In part because newspapers and magazines used to rely on the antics of humanities professors to fill a column or two when the real news was slow. For many years the New York Times had a ritual of listing the titles of panels at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. No comment was required; the titles were self-parodying.

But another reason – and this explains the great deconstruction scare – concerned the old Socratic question of whether a philosopher’s teachings were corrupting the youth. It seemed that students were learning that there was no such thing as meaning, that aesthetic value was an ideological illusion, and ultimately that nothing was true – there were only falsehoods that were mistaken for truths.

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Kubrick’s Style: Neoclassical Modernism

Stanley Kubrick’s visual style can be characterized by thinking about how Ezra Pound described Imagism. “An image,” he said, “is an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Among Pound’s instructions to poets are the imperatives “to employ always the exact word” and “to produce a poetry that is hard and clear.” F.S. Flint added the admonishment “to use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.” Pound likened the ideal poetic line to the musical phrase, and held that “concentration is of the very essence of poetry.”

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What does Nietzsche mean by this: “To admit a belief merely because it is a custom – but that means to be dishonest, cowardly, lazy! – And so could dishonesty, cowardice and laziness be the preconditions of morality?”

As he often does, Nietzsche omits a premise required by his syllogism, leaving to the reader the task of filling it in.

Let C = admitting a belief because it is a custom, let DCL = being dishonest, cowardly, and lazy, and let M = morality. Nietzsche’s observation takes this form:

If C, then DCL.
If DCL, then M.

Obviously, we’re missing a premise:

If M, then C.

By morality, Nietzsche seems to have in mind beliefs, values, and practices that are adhered to merely because it’s customary to do so. This is contrary to the leading principle of the Enlightenment, according to which something should be done only if it is rational to do it.

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What is the idea of “difference” in Gilles Deleuze’s “Difference and Repetition”?

Deleuze used the eternal return as a metaphor to talk about something that mattered more to him than getting Nietzsche right: the nature of identity. Deleuze’s real inspirations were Heraclitus and the Stoics. (But then, so were Nietzsche’s.)

In fragment 59, Heraclitus says that any object consists of an “opposing tension, like that of the bow and the lyre.” The string of a bow appears to be (and is) a stable and unified thing, but that is because it is being pulled in two opposite directions at once. The persistence of the bow over time depends on the persistence of this dynamic tension, not that of its constituent parts.

An object might also persist by changing its constituent parts. A river, for example, consists of flowing water. If you step into one, you’ll step into different water than you would have if you’d stepped in a moment earlier or later. Yet it would still be the same river, because a river is flowing water.

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When René Descartes proposed the thesis “I think, therefore I am,” what did he mean? For example, what distinguishes the thoughts of a human from all other animals?

What distinguishes the thoughts of a human being from the thoughts of other animals is that the latter don’t think about their thoughts.

For example, my cat occasionally believes that a mouse is within striking distance. She doesn’t ask herself whether this belief is true or false, or whether the evidence justifies her belief. She merely believes.

Something similar is true of her inclination to pounce on the mouse. She doesn’t ask herself whether attacking and killing the mouse is morally permissible, or not. She merely attacks and kills.

Descartes’s thought – “I think, therefore I am” – is reflexive. Not only does Descartes think, he understands that he thinks, and that other thoughts follow from what he thinks – or so he thinks, and hopes.

As for what Descartes meant, that’s a long and controversial story. The consensus seems to be that it’s impossible to say precisely what he thought, because he was thinking many different things. He might have thought that “I think, therefore I am” was a logical inference. He might have thought it was a self-evident intuition. He might have confused the two.

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What is Martin Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art”?

“The Origin of the Work of Art” (Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes) is an essay by Martin Heidegger, written and published in various versions from 1935 to 1960. It was drawn from lectures he gave during the same period.
It’s a rich, layered, and complex essay, and it has something to say about virtually everything pertaining to the philosophy of art and aesthetics – and much more.

One important theme is that art is not limited to aesthetic interests. Artworks are about something. They have what philosophers call intentional content. For Heidegger, that means that they are a source of truth, a way in which the world reveals itself. In fact, they exhibit the nature of truth itself, namely that it is “disclosure.” You might say that works of art disclose disclosure. In other words, they are reflexive: not only are they about something, they are about themselves.

Although Heidegger does discuss works of art such as paintings and poems, his main focus in the essay is on buildings that play an important role in the life of a community: the ancient Greek temples to Apollo, Athena, and Hera at Paestum; the Bamberg Cathedral. These works disclose, in an especially vivid, concrete, and immediate way, the understanding of Being shared by the members of their communities. The Greek temples crystalized the meanings of divinity, mortality, victory, and defeat; the Bamberg Cathedral illuminated the meanings of grace and sin.

Heidegger points out that the Greek temples no longer “work” – function – as they did in the past, because we don’t share the understanding of Being in terms of which they made sense. Ancient Greek artworks such as the Aegina sculptures in Munich have been “withdrawn” from their world, and we experience them aesthetically, not as disclosers of disclosure.

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What did Friedrich Schiller mean by “aesthetic education” and how can that form of education be put in practice?

“Aesthetic education” is the education of feelings, which had been sidelined by the Enlightenment, resulting in the corruption of moral sensibility and sensitivity. The instrument of aesthetic education is art, and artists, Schiller says, should devote themselves to creating “symbols of perfection.” If such symbols become ubiquitous, and constitute a people’s main cultural diet, so to speak, they will be inspired to raise themselves to art’s implied standards of integrity, harmony, and wholeness.

The implied standards are captured in a theory of human nature, which is to be deduced from the nature of the human mind. Human beings are constituted by two seemingly opposed principles, namely personal autonomy and freedom on the one hand, and its determining conditions on the other; in more familiar terms, mind and body or reason and appetite. The growth to maturity of any individual consists of bringing the two elements into a harmonious relationship with one another.

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What did Nietzsche mean when he wrote: “If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you”?

Nietzsche makes his remark about the abyss (in Beyond Good and Evil §146) just after cautioning the reader that someone who fights monsters risks becoming a monster himself.

That can happen to the man of ressentiment. He’s convinced that his various disabilities are caused by someone or something out to get him, and that if only the scourge were eliminated from the world all would be well.

If this is your attitude, Nietzsche is saying, you’re going to get really good at ferreting out the nasty parts of life, wherever they might be hiding, and you’ll uncover one hitherto unrecognized injustice after another: first racism, then structural racism, then elitism, then heteronormativism, ableism, lookism, microagression…. You may get to the point where you can see nothing but monsters.

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Do you agree or disagree with Hume’s claim that there is no self?

Hume argued, not that there’s no self, exactly, but that there’s no substantial self.

I’m not entirely persuaded. Consider the following imaginary case:

You’re on a base on the Moon. The oxygen delivery system has malfunctioned and you’re suffocating to death. You step into a machine that scans everything about you down to the last detail, including all your neural pathways and hence all your memories, and transmits this information to Earth. On Earth, the information is used to produce an exact duplicate of you. The “you” on the Moon dies of oxygen deprivation, but the “you” on Earth goes on living. So who are you: the one who died on the Moon, or the one living on Earth?

It seems to me that there’s a duplicate of me on Earth, and that what’s left of the original me is on the Moon. Why? Because although the duplicate has all my memories and experiences and is just like me, I am not the subject of those experiences. My experiences are mine because they happened to me, not merely because they happened.

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Why can’t everything be free?

I assume the question is whether there’s a better way to allocate resources than the market.

Relatedly, the question is whether scarcity can be eliminated, and whether its elimination will make it unnecessary to allocate resources by a principle according to which some receive more than others. If so, then the only principle we’d need is Marx’s: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

Can scarcity be eliminated? Some say that capitalism has artificially multiplied our needs. The idea is that in order to prevent crises stemming from weak demand, capitalist societies create desires for unnecessary things. Without capitalism there would be no need to create these “false needs,” and we would be able to determine what we truly need. If our true needs turn out to be simple and straightforward, we can achieve the elimination of scarcity.

Since we don’t know in advance what our true needs will turn out to be, we can’t know that we’ll be able to eliminate scarcity with respect to them. But for speculative purposes let’s distinguish between things the unavailability of which causes death, and things whose unavailability does not cause death. The first kind are needs, and the second kind are wants.

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