It's hard for me to describe how big an influence the Beastie Boys have had on my life. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found lifesaving inspiration in records like Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head that I could not have found anywhere else. If it were not for the Beastie Boys, I'm pretty sure there would have never been a Literary Kicks.
I know a bit about the Beastie Boys. I've seen them in concert several times, though the live format didn't play to their strengths. The best way to listen to the Beastie Boys is with earbuds in, the world shut out. Their recordings were dense, complex and sophisticated, their rhymes expertly crafted for maximum effect. Each of the three had a highly distinct voice; you can listen to any line in any Beastie Boys song and immediately know whose voice you're hearing:
Congressman and Republican party rising star Paul Ryan, who has never made a secret of his admiration for Ayn Rand before last week, has suddenly caught a bad case of Vice President fever. Rand's Objectivist ideology is too extreme for many American voters, and so Paul Ryan has begun a campaign push to erase all traces of her influence on his thought.
“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.
Well, there are several components to Ayn Rand's philosophy. Epistemologically, she is a rationalist (as was Thomas Aquinas, though his humbler rationalism was more subtle than hers). Psychologically, she is a devout Egoist. Spiritually, she is an atheist (and this is the part of her philosophy Paul Ryan is most eager to distance himself from, even though his newfound and highly convenient embrace of traditional Catholicism isn't impressing several other influential Catholics). But I don't think any of these things should matter very much to voters. Most of us couldn't care less what Paul Ryan thinks about epistemology or psychology or religion.
Paul Ryan was elected by his fellow Republicans for a critically important post in the House of Representatives. He's the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and in this capacity has defined the detailed direction for the USA federal budget for the Republican party. The Paul Ryan budget proposal drastically cuts services that middle class Americans rely on, while lowering taxes for the very wealthy (most obscenely of all, it fails to cut military spending; we can't pay to send poor Americans to college, but profit-bloated military contractors keep getting a blank check). Mitt Romney has called the Paul Ryan budget plan "marvelous". Perhaps the most important question at stake in the upcoming November 2012 elections is whether or not this country will adopt the Paul Ryan budget plan beginning in 2013.
I'm taking a break today! I've been working hard, need to rest and recharge ... so, in lieu of a philosophy post, here's the silliest picture I can find.
This photo was taken at a high school dance in Florida in 1965. A friend of a friend who I don't know posted it on Facebook. The photo itself is a work of art, but there's something else amazing about this picture: that band is the very young Allman Brothers (known, at the time, as Allman Joy). The unassuming guitar player on the left is the genius Duane "Sweetness" Allman, and I'm pretty sure that's Gregg Allman on the right.
I'm searching for a bright light of truth among the hip young "public philosophers" selling books today. Last weekend, we admired Alain De Botton's sensitive style but worried that he might be the Martha Stewart of philosophy. This weekend, I'd like to look at a harder-hitting upstart, Sam Harris, whose key ethical work is The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
I got off to a bad start with Sam Harris in 2004 when he rose to fame with an angry book called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason that identified fundamentalist religion (particularly radical Islam) as a major source of the world's problems. Harris was part of a wave of new atheists, including Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and eventually Christopher Hitchens, who posited Osama bin Laden as the reductio ad absurdum of all organized religion, a formula I completely disagree with (I'm quite sure that "religious hatred" is only a surrogate for ethnic or national hatred, and I suspect that guerrophiles like Osama bin Laden have little authentic interest in religion to begin with).
So I avoided Sam Harris's early books, but he may be improving. His 2010 Moral Landscape is worth digging into and taking quite seriously. This book lays out an extended argument for the real existence of a concrete and universal moral code that could, if properly expressed and understood, significantly, improve the world. This is the kind of ambition I like to see in an ethical philosopher.
The primary challenge facing Sam Harris in this book is not to define a concrete and universal moral code -- not surprisingly, he resorts to a John Stuart Mill-ish Utilitarian approach -- but rather to show that a concrete and universal moral code is possible at all. Harris presents a clear argument for the positive conclusion here, which I will paraphrase as follows:
Whenever Alain De Botton writes a new philosophy book -- which is often -- I root heartily for the guy. The young Swiss intellectual has been aiming to establish himself as the world's foremost public philosopher, seeking the attention of common readers rather than the regard of academic peers by publishing a steady stream of short, friendly books about the way we fall in love, or the work we do to earn a living, or the homes we select to reflect our personalities.
I prefer public philosophers to academic ones (it takes so much more bravery, for one thing, to approach a popular audience) and I want to be an Alain De Botton fan. Unfortunately, for reasons I can't quite explain, I have begun at least seven of his books, and have never felt compelled to finish a single one. I'm always impressed with his sense of mission but put off by a languid, Proustian preciousness of tone, by a sense that I am reading the Martha Stewart of philosophy. His books are illustrated with crisp photos that seem to try to evoke W. G. Sebald, but his meandering prose does not deliver the enigmatic emotional punch of a W. G. Sebald book. The idea of Alain De Botton may be better than the substance ... or perhaps, more optimistically, like Ludwig Wittgenstein he may get better with age.
On first glance I passed over Your Brain On Love, a Diane Ackerman article on the New York Times psychology blog with a Valentine-ish title that indicated the kind of soft piece I usually skip. But a Facebook recommendation sent me back for a second look, and this time I read further and was excited to find an important, convincing piece about the psychology of love that happens to touch directly on some very difficult and esoteric points about the nature of self that I've been struggling to express on this blog.
Diane Ackerman, whose A Natural History of the Senses I enjoyed years ago, wrote this piece to communicate a fact that isn't widely understood: the emotion we call love has a clear physical and neurobiological presence. This physical presence can be seen clearly on standard brain scans, and the neural signals correlate with verbal surveys of elderly spouses who still gaze with wonder upon their spouses. The fact that love has a strong physical presence in our brains appears to be beyond scientific doubt.
Furthermore, Ackerman explains, the brain regularly changes as a result of the physical affects of loving or being loved. These changes impact every aspect of our conscious and subconscious lives, making each of us deeply dependent, to our very core, to our very sense of self-identity, on our connections with others. Our social selves, it turns out, are the deepest selves we have. Our loved ones provide the basic infrastructure of our minds.
When I write about the concept of the group mind, I'm often misunderstood to be advocating for collectivism. In fact, I would never bother advocating for collectivism, because collectivism doesn't need an advocate.
The impulse to groupthink has us all in its grip, every moment of our lives -- whether we like it or not, and whether we admit it or not. We can try to better understand the ways that social psychology affects the individual decisions we make and the private feelings we feel, but it is not in our power to remove these societal influences from our lives. We might just as well try to survive without breathing air.
In the past week, the story of the murder of young African-American Trayvon Martin by an overzealous "Neighborhood Watch" volunteer named George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida has shocked many Americans. The first shock is the injustice of the crime -- a friendly, helpless kid, armed with a deadly Skittle, falling into the crosshairs of a wannabe hero with a gun, a racist eye, and way too much time on his hands.
But George Zimmerman's crime is not an individual crime, and the shadowy fingerprints of the "group mind" are all over this case. Zimmerman was policing a residential area that identified itself as a gated community, and it was his membership in this gated community's "Neighborhood Watch" program that made him feel empowered to shoot at a stranger. When the Sanford police arrived at the scene of the crime, the officers amazingly came to the conclusion that Zimmerman must have been justified in shooting Martin, and even the top leadership of the police force concurred with this decision. What seems at first to be the murderous act of a single deluded man turns out to be the deadly delusion of an entire city.
How would it feel to have been a physicist just before Albert Einstein, or a biologist just before Darwin? I can sympathize with all the dedicated, highly trained scientists who must have toiled in frustration for decades, grasping for insight, groping at patterns, making little discoveries here and there, yet always sensing that they were missing the big idea.
Amateur or professional philosophers today can probably relate, because our field appears to be currently in a state of darkness comparable to physics before Einstein or biology before Darwin. Why do I say this? Well, the big tipoff is the low standing of philosophy as a whole. It's widely considered a quaint and vain hobby, a useless college major that merits half a shelf in every bookstore. We have no famous philosophers, and virtually nobody considers philosophy or ethics important for everyday life.
We are so accustomed to this sad state of affairs that we often forget that societies do not always ignore philosophy; they only do so when the field is moribund. In the half-century before the French revolution, when ethical philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire were making powerful discoveries, philosophers were treated as superstars. Similarly, physicists and biologists probably started getting a whole lot more respect after Einstein and Darwin finally broke the ground that needed to be broken, and may not have gotten much respect before. The standing of any intellectual discipline directly correlates to its level of success ... and it's a sad fact that ethical philosophy has been a flop since the dawn of the modern age.
This is no idle or abstract problem; it amounts to the human disaster of a world that fails to comprehend itself. The spiritual, psychological, social and political problems that ethical philosophy are meant to help fix are going unfixed, and modern society has also come to think of this confusion as normal. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
I don't usually read The Stone, the New York Times philosophy blog. The topics are a bit trendy for my tastes, and the contributors' voices tend to be coy and journalistic, rather than bold and declarative, as a confident philosopher's voice ought to be. Still, when Litkicks friend Nardo tipped me off to Colin McGinn's recent The Stone/Opinionator post Philosophy By Another Name I took a look, and liked what I read.
McGinn, a professor at the University of Miami, points out that the word "philosophy" fails to capture its essence in several ways. It translates as "lover of wisdom", but a great philosopher may not be in specific pursuit of wisdom, and may also not love wisdom (if he or she uncovers painful truths, for instance, he or she may hate wisdom, as valuable as it may be). McGinn suggests the word "ontics" as a modern replacement, pointing out that the discipline may gain respectability from the linguistic vicinity to "physics".
"On Sunday, April 27, 1913, in her Yonkers, New York, home, sixty-seven-year-old Jennie Hintz tried a new way of practicing her piety. She did not need the assistance of clergy, nor did she need to go to church, as she had given up her faith almost a half century earlier. The kind of devotion she experimented with had nothing to do with institutional Christianity, or Jesus, or the sacraments of her youth. It simply required her to put pen to paper and express in unguarded prose what Friedrich Nietzsche meant to her.
Her writing took the form of a long handwritten letter to Nietzsche's sister and literary executor, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, to give thanks and praise for her brother's life and though. Hintz, a self-described "spinster", introduced herself as a "great admirer of your brother's philosophy and his morals." She explained that she had been reading Nietzsche's works for over a year and a half, starting with "Beyond Good and Evil", the only Nietzsche volume in her local library at the time ... She said she felt drawn to Nietzsche because "in many points I had already arrived at these truths before he expressed them, but I remained mute keeping them for myself." She did so, she explained, because in dealing with people more educated than she, Hintz found she was not listened to or taken seriously. But reading Nietzsche let her know that there was someone she could relate to."
Friedrich Nietzsche, that strange, alluring bird. His prose could soar, but what happened when this bird landed on the earth? I knew as soon as I heard about the new American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that this book would be valuable, and I could barely wait to read it. I'm a gigantic fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, but his outrageously original books (some of the best include The Birth of Tragedy, Beyond Good & Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Ecce Homo) often leave readers in a state of vertigo. His slashing rants against phony moralists and smug academics were clearly designed to reverberate, but exactly how did they reverberate? To understand a philosopher so conscious of conflict, we must understand the conflicts his own ideas created, because these conflicts are the very manifestation of the philosophy. The fact that this sickly German professor became a celebrity and an icon seems as unlikely as his works themselves, and just as laden with meaning.