Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Philosophy Weekend: David Brooks is On To Something

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 21, 2011 09:56 pm

I never expected to find myself defending the work of David Brooks, a recently famous culture critic whose signature work (until now) was Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, a bland, predictable putdown of "the Starbucks lifestyle" designed for the bestseller list. I don't particularly like his hectic, pushy writing style, and I haven't even read his new book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. But I did read some articles about it, and noted that the book argues an intriguing proposition: we are constantly influenced by subconscious thoughts and needs that we do not understand well, and most of these subconscious thoughts and needs are group-oriented or collective in nature.

This idea reminds me very much of some of my own recent thoughts about why Carl Jung is more relevant to our times than Ayn Rand. The Social Animal does not sell itself as a Jungian work, but that's what it is (though Brooks's emphasis is scientific where Jung's was mystical). I certainly agree with the book's basic conclusion. It seems that David Brooks may have turned a corner and stumbled upon a truly important and valuable idea.

Philosophy Weekend: The Nest

by Levi Asher on Friday, May 13, 2011 05:47 pm

I'm taking a break this weekend. I've been working hard on my next Kindle book (coming soon) and I just don't have what it takes to put any big ideas together today.

But I'd like to share a time-lapse video of a family of birds in a nest (this link was tweeted by @caryn74, and I'm not even going to do anything with that pun). Nice backyard filmmaking by Fred Marguiles -- as philosophical as anything I could ever write. Have a great weekend ...

On Zazen: A Talk With Vanessa Veselka

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 9, 2011 07:54 pm

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is an amazing novel, easily one of the most exciting books of the year.

The story is narrated by Della, a recent college graduate with a degree in paleontology, who kills time learning yoga and working in a vegan restaurant while her country, a slightly twisted mirror reflection of today's United States of America, slips into chaos amidst the failures of War A and War B. Della lives with her brother Credence, with whom she shares the disconcerting memories of extreme hippie parenting, and wanders her city (which resembles Portland, Oregon) wrestling with her anxiety, imagining acts of violence and developing desperate crushes on anyone who reaches out to her with a kind word. She's a wry, sarcastic narrator and a troublemaker, and the best thing about Zazen is the chance to see the world through this funny, brainy character's eyes.

As a bittersweet snapshot of a deeply confused alternative hipster counterculture, Zazen is reminiscent of Justin Taylor's The Gospel of Anarchy, another recent book I liked. But Gospel of Anarchy is about post-collegiate anarchists and punks, while Zazen is about post-collegiate anarchists and vegans, and Zazen is about ten times more manic. The comic prose recalls Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, while the book's sense of traumatic disorientation and social disconnectedness calls to mind Tom McCarthy's Remainder. With all that said, Zazen is like nothing but itself -- a simply original story, emotionally resonant and crammed with nuggets of delightful observation.

This novel is one of the kickoff publications from a new publishing house, Richard Nash's innovative Red Lemonade, which invites you to read the entire novel online. But you may want to buy a copy of this book, or give one to an anarchist/vegan friend. I was very happy to have had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka some questions about her brilliant work. Here's the conversation we had.

Philosophy Weekend: Explaining Osama Bin Laden

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 7, 2011 03:12 pm

A video captured from Osama bin Laden's final home has just been released. It shows him watching news coverage of himself on TV, and I find this strangely satisfying to watch, because it underscores what I have always suspected about the basic motivation behind Bin Laden's acts of terror. Why did he do the things he did? These are the three explanations I hear most often:

  • He was simply evil; he hated life and goodness itself.
  • He was a nutjob.
  • He was a religious fanatic.

I'm quite sure that all of these explanations are wrong. It's comforting to picture Bin Laden as a person simply wracked by hatred, and other horrible figures like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have been frequently described as vile and hateful by those who knew them. But the portrait that emerged of Osama bin Laden from books like Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 did not show a generally hateful streak. He was liked and respected by those closest to him, and he only committed acts of violence against people far away, people who must have seemed like abstractions to him.

Was he a nutjob? This is just a brainless radio show talking point, a punchline. There is not the slightest evidence at all that Osama bin Laden ever suffered from any kind of mental illness.

A religious fanatic? This is what Bin Laden wanted others to believe, but I suspect he was barely religious at all. His calls for "jihad" were entirely based on nationalistic and ethnic rhetoric. Since Sunni Islam largely coincides with an ethnic identity, it was very convenient for him to be fighting for a "religion" when in fact all signs indicate that his goals were thoroughly political and earthbound. He was a rigid traditionalist, but showed no signs of a searching, spiritual mind. Anyone can put on robes and pray, but that doesn't mean we have to believe in their sincerity. There's plenty of reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden's devotion to Islam was shallow and opportunistic.

Philosophy Weekend: Nicholson Baker's Case for Pacifism

by Levi Asher on Sunday, May 1, 2011 11:16 am

I like to mix it up here in these weekend philosophy posts -- Ayn Rand, the free will problem, KRS-One -- but a featured article by Nicholson Baker in the new issue of Harper's Magazine reminds me why I began this series in the first place. I wanted to begin examining the philosophical premises behind the political opinions we all feel deeply about, and try to recover a sense of principle and logic amidst the noise of topical debate. Most of all, as an American who cares deeply about my country's honor and security, I wanted to question the popular enthusiasm for war and militarism that I see all around me.

This interest of mine lies behind many of the ethical discussions I've been holding here, and the weekend posts I care about most are the ones where I deal with it directly, such as the posts titled "Pacifism's Coma" and "The Trauma Theory".

But committed, serious pacifists remain an endangered species in the world today. It's a lonely position to hold, especially since the popular passion for war feeds on itself and has had plenty to feed on in the past ten years. Going further back, the traumas of the continent-wide and world-wide wars that have gripped the planet nonstop since the age of Napoleon seem to have the world still shook, still seething with international hatred and suspicion. The argument for pacifism often seems hopeless (even though I'm sure it's not) and that's why I'm so happy that Nicholson Baker is on the case. This great, wide-ranging author is a witty and inventive postmodern novelist, a piquant literary critic and a stubborn literary preservationist as well as an idiosyncratic and original political writer, and I value his work immensely.

Philosophy Weekend: Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 24, 2011 10:44 am

There's nothing wrong with the sideways-glance approach to the philosophical canon. Andrew Shaffer's Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love is a slim, friendly book that asks a pertinent question: if folks like Saint Thomas Aquinas, Simone de Beauvoir, John Calvin, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emanuel Swedenborg were so smart, how did they manage to meet life's most personal challenge? Were they able to find true love, and if so were they able to sustain happy long-term relationships? What can we learn from the choices or mistakes they made?

Philosophy Weekend: Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters)

by Levi Asher on Saturday, April 16, 2011 12:08 pm

I wrote Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters), a new book now available for Kindle, to fill a vacuum. I'm pretty sure it represents a completely original approach to the works of Ayn Rand.

There are a lot of smart people in the world who value Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, and there are also a lot of smart people who don't. This ought to be the making of a great public debate ... but the two sides don't debate.

Instead, they call each other names. Non-objectivists caricature Ayn Rand as a shrill proto-fascist and mock the enthusiasm of her fans. Her fans circle the wagons and remind each other that the world is full of cowards who can't handle Rand's clear thinking anyway. Both sides seem to just wish the other side would go away. This is how we treat a philosopher who dares to write with strength and originality?

Philosophy Weekend: The Case Against Egoism

by Levi Asher on Friday, April 8, 2011 12:01 pm

Egoism, the belief that people can or should only act on their own individual self-interest, is the great unchallenged premise of our age.

It’s hard to imagine that many people fully subscribe to this idea, and yet there is no well-known critique of egoism. Various religions or social/political activist movements point away from egoism, but religious or political writers rarely confront the egoist premise directly. Many people object instinctively to the egoist idea, but there is no popular common understanding of why the egoist premise is a weak and unconvincing one.

Those who advocate the egoist view of life have been more vocal and more direct than those who don't. Several philosophers are associated with the egoist position, though they each cover distinct facets of the egoist doctrine, with vastly different attitudes:

Philosophy Weekend: Check Your Premises

by Levi Asher on Saturday, April 2, 2011 07:55 pm

A friend recently called me out on a problem with my series on Ayn Rand: I was using Ayn Rand as a straw man, she said, for a general argument that is about more than Ayn Rand.

I admit that this is true. I began this exercise because I pay close attention to the political debates going on today in my country between liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Tea Partiers, and (most often of all) disaffected and disgusted citizens who are just sick of all the noise. I'm sick of the noise too, and I think it's unfortunate that our public debates (on TV and cable news, on radio talk shows, in newspapers, on blogs) are so pigheaded and thoughtless on all sides. We're missing the chance for real debates on real principles.

Ayn Rand, it happens, was also a big believer in intelligent debate and principled argument. This is the biggest thing Ayn Rand and I do agree on. Debate matters. Debate is everything. I love this quote of hers:

Philosophy Weekend: The Elusive Self

by Levi Asher on Sunday, March 27, 2011 09:41 am

Why do the models we use to understand the human mind often seem so shallow, so unsatisfying? Could it be because the great discoveries in this field have not been made yet?

Plato wrote of the mind in a cave, groping towards the light. Sigmund Freud broke the mind down into three components, Id and Ego and Superego. Ayn Rand depicted the mind as heroic raw intellect, needing only to throw off its chains. All of these models have their purposes, but they creak and sputter under real-world use.

We can't blame the great philosophers and psychologists of the past for not trying hard enough, but we should look to future thinkers to help us understand our conscious selves better, and I suspect there's some low-hanging fruit on this tree. The question of the self -- what it is, how it evolves over time, how it relates to other selves -- is the great philosophical puzzle of our current age.


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