"Outside of society!" shouts Patti Smith in one of her best songs, Rock and Roll Nigger. The phrase expresses not a reality but rather only a dream for many of us. For a small few, it's an actual choice.
I've never lived off the grid, but I've always been drawn to the idea. The impulse to withdraw from modern suburbia and reinvent society in capsule form has a long intellectual history; it was a driving force of the French Enlightenment, New England Transcendentalism (Louisa May Alcott spent part of her childhood in her father's commune) and the 1960s hippie revolution. During that golden age, Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters lived in a cabin in Palo Alto, Timothy Leary held court at Millbrook, New York, while Allen Ginsberg's poetic entourage gathered around Cherry Valley, New York. But Charlie Manson was also building his own society at Spahn Movie Ranch outside of Los Angeles during these years. Many of the most well-known off-the-grid communes since the end of the 1960s have similarly been disaster stories: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in Guyana, David Koresh and the Branch Dravidians in Waco, the lonely Unabomber in his Lincoln, Montana cabin.
Some of the original hippie communes, though, did not fail, and managed to evolve. My older and younger sisters both experimented with communal societies at different points in their lives, and I once visited my younger sister for a weekend while she lived on the edge -- half in, half out -- of a rural commune in northwestern Vermont that sustained about 75 regulars and many more visitors. The informal commune -- people lived in separate shacks, but spent their days together -- had existed quietly and successfully for years. I hope it's still there.
Today's guest philosopher is the great KRS-One. Despite the title, the classic Boogie Down Productions track "My Philosophy" doesn't directly address questions of epistemology, ethics or metaphysics. But it says a whole lot, and you can't deny the vocal stylings of KRS. In a few seconds, a philosopher will begin to speak ...
These are the books I kept. I probably threw out or lost about as many from the five years I spent earning a bachelor's degree in Philosophy from the State University of New York at Albany. But these books followed me in all my life's travels, and the ideas they held did too.
The University at Albany was a good school, and I got a strong education there. I didn't appreciate the college as much at the time as I do now -- but it's hard to feel special inside an education factory with a population of 18,000.
The Philosophy department was a small, slightly quaint and dusty retreat inside the giant factory, notable for its complete lack of career focus. I liked all my professors (though I find it odd to realize, now, that I never knew any of their first names). Prof. Cadbury taught the proverbial Philosophy 101; he introduced me to Rene Descartes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant. (These names thrilled me strangely, then, and they still do today. Call me a philosophy nerd, I don't care.)
Bill Vallicella, a former professor who runs a good philosophy blog called The Maverick Philosopher, has written an article called Buddhism on Suffering and One Reason I am Not a Buddhist.
He has every right to not be a Buddhist, of course, but I think his article expresses a misunderstanding of Buddhism. This is a misunderstanding I've also heard from others. Vallicella objects to the Buddhist teaching on desire, one of its core concepts, for its essential negativity:
For Buddhism, all is
dukkha, suffering. Allis unsatisfactory. This, the First Noble Truth, runs contrary to ordinary modes of thinking: doesn't life routinely offer us, besides pain and misery and disappointment, intense pleasures and deep satisfactions?
He describes what he sees as the Buddhist attitude towards desire in more detail here, and he captures the prevailing belief well enough:
Each satisfaction leaves us in the lurch, wanting more. A desire satisfied is a desire entrenched. Masturbate once, and you will do it a thousand times, with the need for repetition testifying to the unsatisfactoriness of the initial satisfaction. Each pleasure promises more that it can possibly deliver, and so refers you to the next and the next and the next, none of them finally satisfactory. It's a sort of Hegelian
schlechte Unendlichkeit. Desire satisfied becomes craving, and craving is an instance of dukkha. One becomes attached to the paltry and impermanent and one suffers when it cannot be had.
Yes, this is what Buddhists believe, but if this were the sum total of Buddhist teaching on desire then I would not be a Buddhist either. Taken in isolation, this is too stringent an attitude, too humorless, too inhumane. But is this utter rejection of desire what Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha, actually taught, and what he represented to his own direct followers? Let's take a closer look.
Since it's our mission here to discuss popular (rather than academic) philosophy, we can hardly ignore the emergence in the last two years of the Tea Party, a raucous and highly ideological political protest movement that has grown powerful among conservative and/or Republican American voters, and aims to transform the nation.
As a proud liberal, I disagree with almost everything in the Tea Party's loosely defined platform. But I try to always treat my opponents with respect and empathy, and I am disappointed that so many of my fellow liberals have been reacting to the emergence of this grassroots movement by trying to wish it away, and by emphasizing its worst evident characteristics over its better ones.
It's not hard to find noisy Tea Party protestors expressing racist hatred towards President Barack Obama, or saying disturbingly uneducated things about Islam, or carrying signs that cry out for spell-check. It's also not hard to find fault with heroes of the Tea Party movement like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul, Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, and to claim that their obvious flaws -- Sarah Palin's glib overconfidence, Glenn Beck's rabid rage, Christine O'Donnell's hilarious weirdness -- represent the flaws of the movement at large.
But, as always in a principled argument, we'll all benefit more by analyzing this movement according to its best rather than worst characteristics, thus allowing its opposition (which I'm a part of) the chance to win in a fair fight. The Tea Party phenomenon is admirably idealistic and philosophical at its core, and I've spent some time trying to discern (by reading blogs, reading newspapers, listening to talk radio and watching Fox News) the basic intellectual principles behind the Tea Party movement.
We live in a world suffused by the awareness of Evil. Not so much "evil" as described by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
morally reprehensible, sinful, wicked; arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct
but rather a notion of complete, essential and immutable Evil -- more like the definition in The Catholic Encyclopedia, which begins:
Evil, in a large sense, may be described as the sum of the opposition, which experience shows to exist in the universe, to the desires and needs of individuals; whence arises, among humans beings at least, the sufferings in which life abounds.
This is Evil with a capital E, a singular thing, a characteristic that is applied to humans but seems to originate beyond nature and beyond the bounds of normal life. Like a villain's superpower, this Evil is not a compound object but rather a basic element. It can be defeated but it can't be destroyed. And this Evil walks among us. It has a human face.
Not the New York Times too!
A recent essay titled Plato's Pop Culture Problem, and Ours by Princeton professor Alexander Nehamas reinforces a tiresome cliche about the great Athenian thinker that has been spreading, meme-like, for years. I'm talking about the idea that Plato advocated censorship of poetry and music.
Nehamas mainly uses Plato as a foil in this New York Times opinion piece about video game censorship in California, an article that begins with a strained attempt at relevance:
This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a case that may have the unusual result of establishing a philosophical link between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Plato.
The case in question is the 2008 decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals striking down a California law signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2005, that imposed fines on stores that sell video games featuring “sexual and heinous violence” to minors. The issue is an old one: one side argues that video games shouldn’t receive First Amendment protection since exposure to violence in the media is likely to cause increased aggression or violence in real life. The other side counters that the evidence shows nothing more than a correlation between the games and actual violence. In their book “Grand Theft Childhood,” the authors Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson of Harvard Medical School argue that this causal claim is only the result of “bad or irrelevant research, muddleheaded thinking and unfounded, simplistic news reports.”
The issue, which at first glance seems so contemporary, actually predates the pixel by more than two millennia. In fact, an earlier version of the dispute may be found in “The Republic,” in which Plato shockingly excludes Homer and the great tragic dramatists from the ideal society he describes in that work.
J. M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, a book of essays compiled by Anton Leist and Peter Singer, presents itself as a general overview of philosophical themes -- morality, semiotics -- in the work of the great South African novelist J. M. Coetzee.
There is plenty of substance to this collection, though anyone familiar with the work of philosopher Peter Singer will detect a false note in the book's pretense to disinterested objectivity. Peter Singer has devoted his career in academic philosophy to animal rights -- his Animal Liberation was published in 1975, and he has championed the cause passionately since then. Human/animal relations is also a persistent theme in the fiction of J. M. Coetzee, and it's clear that Singer initiated this project as the latest step in his lifelong mission.
I wrote an article this week for the Second Pass as part of a series honoring the great philosopher William James on the centennial of his death. This centennial has also been observed at The Atlantic (which was kind enough to note my piece) and The Daily Beast (by Robert Richardson, whose new collection of selected essays ought to help spread the Jamesian gospel.)
My article is about the historic meeting of William James and Sigmund Freud in at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1909. Other pieces at the Second Pass this week include a choice quote from The Varieties of Religious Experience, a piece by J. C. Hallman and another by Levi Stahl (one of only two other people named Levi I've ever heard of in real life -- if we could get Levi Johnston over here we'd have the whole set).
I've been reading and appreciating William James for a long time, and have always considered his theory of truth to be his crowning achievement. By the time James arrived on the scene in the late 19th Century, philosophers from Rene Descartes to David Hume to Immanuel Kant had been long grappling with the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth, and had been grouped into regional/ideological clusters known as Continental Rationalism, British Empiricism and German Idealism according to their positions on this question. William James provided the most modern and, arguably, the most credible and satisfying entry in this race: American Pragmatism.
I was talking recently to a friend, a guy I thought was pretty smart, about all the attention the Tea Party movement's been getting lately. I'm far from a Tea Party conservative -- far from a conservative at all -- but I wanted to hear my friend's opinion on a particular point and was disappointed that he reacted to the very mention of the Tea Party with such revulsion and disdain that it became impossible to talk further with him about it.
He had only one thing to say: the Tea Party movement is reprehensible, racist and completely ignorant. He would not dignify it with words; the only proper response was to spit or cuss. Our conversation ended there, and, for me at least, it wasn't very fun.
Strangely, most conservatives I've tried to talk with about politics react the same way to liberal ideas. Not long ago, I found myself chatting on a train with a woman who told me she worked as a hospital bookkeeper. Hoping to liven up the usual boring train-ride chatter, I asked what she thought of Barack Obama's health care plan. She reacted with disgust and horror, and when I told her that I was happy the bill had passed I instantly saw on her face that our conversation was over. She could barely comprehend that I could be sitting next to her. A few minutes later, I'm pretty sure I overheard her whispering to a friend on her cell phone about the upsetting encounter she'd just had on the train.