I probably skim 150 to 200 blog posts or articles a day, prompted by RSS and Facebook and Twitter. The headlines usually fly by without leaving a trace, but I skimmed one two weeks ago, then returned to it a few days later to read it in full, and found myself thinking about it ever since. This is a piece by a professor named William Egginton with the unfortunately unfocused title "The Novel and the Origins of Modern Philosophy" that appeared at a site called Berfrois after originally running at Stanford University's Arcade. It'ss about the influence Miguel de Cervantes's satirical masterpiece Don Quixote may have had on Rene Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy, which contained the philosopher's great declaration cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am").
As I read the short article in full, the idea of considering Cervantes and Descartes together suddenly struck me as an obviously great idea -- and not only because of the coincidence that they both have 9-letter names in which 5 of the letters are in exactly the same place (the pronunciations, however, are entirely different, one name being Spanish and the other French).
Philosophy Weekend has always been about moral, social and political philosophy (I originally thought of calling the series "Ethics Weekend", but that title just does not have any zing to it). In the past couple of years, I've allowed two major developments to dominate my choice of weekly topics. First, I became alarmed by Ayn Rand's increasing popularity and began devoting many blog posts to a critique of Objectivism and its underlying assumption of psychological Egoism. Second, I got caught up in the excitement and crazy drama of the 2012 USA presidential election, and devoted many weekend posts to that whole thing. (Interestingly, the common demoninator between these two themes was embodied in a single person, Congressman Paul Ryan, who I expect to be writing a lot about again in three years when he begins running like a maniac for President.)
I never mind a good diversion, but a recent New York Times headline about an attempt by the Obama administration to create a rulebook for the use of military drones reminded me that I originally had a different underlying inquiry in mind for all of these philosophical inquiries, which has gotten buried amidst all the Ayn Rand inquiries and Mitt Romney bobblehead dolls of the past two years. My big question is this: what is pacifism, and why has it become so quiet? Is the philosophy of pacifism viable at all today? How can pacifism be returned to relevance in an era that seems to have completely disdained it, and how can it possibly be that so few people seem to care whether it is returned to relevance or not?
I was talking with friends about the post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" shopping craze that has become an increasing meme in the United States of America over the past few years. The prevailing opinion among my friends is that this trend represents yet another terrible new turn towards casual violence, selfishness and greed in our craven society, and reports of maniacal frenzies at spots like this Walmart in Moultrie, Georgia seem to bear this interpretation out. One person caught in the Moultrie, Georgia frenzy was quoted expressing disgust about what went down:
History has a way of turning complex philosophers into simple cliches. Through the course of my philosophical education, I've only ever heard of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as a target for refutation, a "straight man" from an earlier age of extreme rationalism, destined to be torn to shreds by the witty talents of Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, William James. With skillful opposition like this, Hegel's legacy of crystalline idealism never stood a chance.
It also did Hegel's legacy no favors when Karl Marx built his advanced theory of utopian Communist society upon a Hegelian framework, though Marx explicitly stated that he was doing so by transforming Hegel's abstract intellectualism into a materialist system of thought, aiming for real-world results rather than theoretical conclusions. It's does not seem that Marx's Communism was a faithful friend to Hegelian idealism (Hegel died when Marx was 13 years old, so Hegel never knew about his most influential follower) -- but it is clear that Marx ruined Hegel's name for legions of anti-Communists. Once a bright light of the German renaissance, Hegel has taken such a terrible beating from the empiricists, existentialists, pragmatists, free market economists and philosophical libertarians who followed him that his reputation can barely be said to have survived at all, except as a symbol of obsolescence.
Can a beating like this ever be fair? Is it possible to find value in Hegel's work today, and is there any point in looking for it? Well, it's certainly possible to understand Hegel as a fuller person when one learns that he began his fruitful philosophical journey as an eager University student in Tubingen, Baden-Wurtterberg, where, incredibly enough, he shared an apartment with the future poet Friedrich Holderlin and the future philosopher Friedrich Schelling. Their dorm parties must have been intense. Hegel's early college years were the years of the French Revolution and its tortuous aftermath, of shocking political changes that rocked all of Germany and central/eastern Europe. Eventually, after young Hegel advanced to graduate studies in the Prussian university town of Jena, he would directly witness Napoleon's victorious entrance into that town, and would applaud the champion of French egalitarianism even though he was fighting against German armies.
This surreal image is a real screenshot from a real website -- the victory website that went live after the polls closed on USA election day 2012, because apparently, stunningly, incredibly ... Mitt Romney's staff was that sure that they would win. They had given unconditional orders -- unconditional! -- to launch the website when the election ended.
Four days after the election, the revelation that not only Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan but their entire entourage and staff were sure they would win is still rocking the world. It turned out that Romney spent the evening of election day stewing in his hotel room with his yes-man entourage, doing nothing but smoothing out the final draft of his acceptance speech.
The prior evidence that he would lose was, of course, rather overwhelming. His campaign had gone unusually badly in the public eye, he had barely unified his own party, and had never dominated any polling cycle. Nate Silver, the most influential poll analyst in the world, a nonpartisan observer who in the past had correctly predicted Republican victories as well as Democratic ones, had already announced in the New York Times that polling numbers strongly favored President Obama. The Obama administration knew it would win, and said so. I knew Obama would win. Even Bob Dylan knew Obama would win.
Yes, of course, the Romney campaign was projecting confidence in its public statements, and everybody on Fox News and conservative talk radio was parroting the weak evidence that Romney might win, but few of us imagined that the Romney inner circle had wrapped itself so deeply in delusion that they believed it deep inside. This was a greater cognitive disconnect than anyone expected. Isn't Mitt Romney supposed to be a solid businessman? Don't businessmen use actual information and data to make decisions? If his judgment was so murky about his own chances to beat a popular President, how could he be expected to produce rational policies involving, say, the chances that a hostile approach towards Iran or China would be successful, or the chances that greater tax breaks for the wealthy would help the middle class, or the chances that deregulating Wall Street banks would not enable another orgy of corruption, or the chances that global climate change was not a serious scientific concern? Romney's final day as a candidate found the man who would be President at an absolute peak of cluelessness, his head completely in the clouds.
Shared Experience. For all their gross inanity, presidential elections in the United States of America are enthralling shared experiences, like sporting events or rock concerts. The collective mind buzzes and reacts as a single thinking unit, bitterly torn but phenomenologically connected, lurching back and forth in fits and shocks and waves.
Authentic shared experiences don't happen very often -- though perhaps the most important shared experiences we go through involve terrible crises like the South Asian tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the earthquake and tsunami last year in Japan, or the flood following Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey last week. These frightening events help to remind us not to get so caught up in the whitewashed dumbshow of presidential elections that we forget to also care about issues like global climate change -- issues that fail to get mentioned in elections, because they aren't part of either party's poll-tested path to victory. Years from now, we may look back and remember that those were the most important issues of all.
Dishonesty As Hammer The shared experience of a presidential election has more intellectual substance than many other kinds of shared experience, even though by the end of an election season (the current one, a long and crazy one, will finally be over on Tuesday) our intellects may feel numb and battered by the constant assaults against truthfulness and honesty.
Even a relatively straightforward candidate like Barack Obama pushes the limits of credulity often during debates or campaign speeches, though Obama's single worst campaign moment was the first debate with Mitt Romney, in which he was caught not lying but dozing, playing it safe, appearing aloof.
Penguin and Random House are merging. This is big news because Random House and Penguin are two of the biggest of the "Big Six" publishing firms that currently rule the book business (the other four are Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Hachette). It's also big news for devoted readers, because these are two of the most beloved historic brands in modern literature. Random House once published Ulysses by James Joyce, and its Alfred A. Knopf imprint is often considered the single most prestigious name in literary fiction. Penguin helped generations of readers enjoy great books of the past with its beautiful Penguin Classics line, and its Viking subsidiary once published On The Road by Jack Kerouac.
What good will a Penguin/Random House merger do? In my opinion: absolutely none. A book publisher merger, like a bank merger or a food company merger, is never designed to improve the products the companies sell. It's usually an act of economic opportunism or arbitrage, a shuffling of objects to temporarily hype up their combined value. In this case, it appears that Penguin's parent company Pearson wanted to get out of trade publishing to focus on other businesses, and Random House picked up the orphan before HarperCollins could grab it.
No word has been thrown around more during the USA presidential election of 2012 than "jobs". The single greatest failure of the Obama administration, according to Mitt Romney and his supporters, is the unemployment rate. More jobs, we are told, will save the economy, and Mitt Romney has pledged to create 12 million new ones. Here's a typical Romney quote about working women and day care.
“I wanted to increase the work requirement,” said Romney. “I said, for instance, that even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving day care to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’”
It's so easy to tangle Mitt Romney up in his own words that there's often no sport in it. This quote caused Romney some problems because of the arrogance it expressed towards mothers who might wish to raise their children rather than put them in day care. But there's more to examine here. The final phrase of the quote -- "the dignity of work" -- is revealing in ways that go beyond gender.
The sacred ideal of the full-time job is one of the major themes of the Plutocrat/Randian wing of the Republican party, and, beyond that, of American culture as a whole. This comes out often in our current debates: the coddling of "job creators", the singular obsession with unemployment rates, the idea that health insurance is best managed by employers rather than by the federal government. This idea that we are better off trusting our employers than we are trusting the federal government is an idea that most of us who actually depend on full-time jobs for our livelihood can only laugh at.
The free job market, according to the Plutocrats, assures excellence through the profit motive, through natural selection. Unlike the mediocrity, dishonesty and dependency of the so-called nanny state economy, an economy rooted solely in free enterprise and capitalist self-interest will invigorate and inspire us all. But what about the mediocrity, dishonesty and dependency we all see inside the free job market?
James Joyce's experimental masterwork Finnegans Wake gets a visual treatment by Jason Novak in the Paris Review. Novak wastes little time pondering the novel's meaning or plotline, noting that it "begins halfway through its final sentence" (indeed, it does).
Myself, I've never been able to actually finish reading Joyce's grand gesture to introspective modernism ... but Jason Novak's 7-panel cartoon, which deftly illustrates a symbolic anecdote from the book, will help me fake it at parties.
Two and a half years ago, I watched the televised bipartisan Health Care Summit called by President Obama to help find a way to pass his embattled but vitally important health insurance reform bill (a few weeks later, Obamacare finally became law). During these intense sessions, I noticed a single Republican politician at the table who seemed far more driven and articulate than all the others. This was my first glimpse of Paul Ryan, the young Wisconsin congressman and House Budget Chief, and I immediately knew he was a politician to watch. Closely ...
My first impression of Paul Ryan became complete when I discovered that he is an enthusiastic follower of Ayn Rand (though he later tried to cover this up after discovering that Ayn Rand polls very badly with religious voters). I don't think it reflects badly on Paul Ryan's character that he believes in Ayn Rand's philosophy of extreme free-market capitalism. I have tried to reach out to the growing worldwide community of Rand enthusiasts through blog posts and a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), a book that evaluates the Rand doctrine seriously and treats her followers with respect. The book has been a success in several ways -- it continues to sell hundreds of copies each month (it has received a significant Paul Ryan bump), and has also allowed me to enter into private or public discussions with Objectivists all over the world when they contact me with critiques of my book. This experience confirms for me what I already knew: Objectivists tend to be very smart, complex, articulate and creative people. The stereotype of a Randian as a lunkheaded bully belongs to the past; today's Randians are young and energetic and full of new ideas. And their ranks are growing, not shrinking -- Ayn Rand is dead, but Objectivism is increasingly seen as a movement for the future.
It shouldn't reflect badly on Paul Ryan's character that he is into Ayn Rand. However, it should reflect very badly -- very, very badly -- on his claim to be a good choice for Vice President of the United States. Do we want an Objectivist one heartbeat away from the leadership of our great nation? I'm sure we don't.