When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a crane driver. My parents thought this was pretty funny, since I was apparently a rather brainy and un-physical kid. Nobody else ever saw a hard hat and a metal lunchbox in my future, yet I was always obsessed with buildings and urban architecture, I always wanted to stop and look when we passed a construction site, and I still wonder today if I would have found greater overall satisfaction if I'd stuck to my earliest career plan. My crane-driver dreams were probably also inspired by The Flintstones.
I recently took a walk during a lunch break from my current day job, which is in the high-tech corridor of Herndon/Reston in Northern Virginia, and spotted a bustling building site where hundreds of construction professionals were hard at work. It occurred to me that I was looking at a real-life version of the positive vision presented by countless Republican or Democratic party political ads, because these TV commercials love to show the stern, trusting faces of stolid middle-aged guys wearing hard hats at construction sites. The construction job is the idealized American job: decent pay and benefits, solid and dependable hours, the satisfaction of watching a building emerge under your feet. Here's a wider vista of the project I watched for a few minutes before heading back to my own less exciting (but also, in its own way, rewarding and satisfying) job developing Drupal-based web applications for government-sponsored sites.
I heard about a new blog called The Philosopher's Cocoon, a "safe and supportive forum for early-career philosophers", and at first I was pretty excited. I'm always looking for new approaches to public philosophy, and many of the better blogs tend to be too academic for my tastes. I imagined that a "philosopher's cocoon" would be a place where armchair philosophers like myself could feel welcome, but it turns out that I missed the emphasis in the site's self-description. The emphasis is on the word "career", and this is a blog for graduate students and low-level professors -- basically, an academic philosophy blog on training wheels.
This is not to say it's not a good blog -- in fact, it's quite lively and packed with ideas. But I am disappointed that there are so few resources or forums for serious "lay philosophers" like myself, and I find it disconcerting to see so many young people marching (pointlessly?) into the scholarly lifestyle. At one point in my life, I had intended to join this march myself.
During my second and third (of five) years in college, my career plan was to go to grad school and become a philosophy professor. Philosophy was far and away my favorite subject in college, and I had found a few mentors in the department -- the sly Prof. Meyers, the dapper Prof. Cadbury, the cosmic Prof. Garvin -- who I considered worthy of emulating with the greatest commitment of my life. I had even convinced my parents (who were funding my college education) to buy into this plan, as long as it was understood that I would be supporting myself during grad school.
By my junior year, I was taking graduate-level courses and hanging out with actual philosophy grad students and young junior-assistant professors who were a few years ahead of me on the path I planned to take. One grad student/teaching associate I befriended was a strange man several years older than me whose name I have mercifully forgotten. I remember that he had a perpetually grim expression -- any attempt at a smile looked highly painful -- and also that he strongly resembled the cartoon character Charlie Brown: tubby physique, moon-round face, even a curly little tuft of hair on the forehead of his mostly bald head. (It's probably because this person resided inside my brain as "Charlie Brown" that I can't remember his name today.)
The Literary Kicks upgrade/redesign is progressing well. I'm on a rare family vacation out on Long Island, catching up on my reading and thinking (sometimes it feels great to just take in, to not be writing) and I'm looking forward to coming back refreshed in early September.
Meanwhile, up in the real world, some people are asking if Mitt Romney's selection of enthusiastic Ayn Rand follower Paul Ryan as his running mate represents the closest Ayn Rand has ever come to the White House, the zenith of her influence on American politics. Actually, Ayn Rand has been in the White House, and in Congress, and all over Washington DC, for nearly 40 years now.
Ronald Reagan was a Randian (though the fiercely independent Ayn Rand herself refused to salute him back). Trickle-down economics -- the idea that government policies should favor the wealthy, ignore the middle and lower classes and "allow the rising tide to lift all boats" -- is Rand's economic philosophy in action. This unfortunate and dangerous ideology, which culminated in the ruinous financial crash of 2007/2008, has dominated federal economic policy since the 1980s. Even the supposedly liberal administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have barely managed to make a dent in the trickle-down system. The fact that President Obama's call for the wealthiest Americans to pay more taxes is controversial (I think it's a no-brainer that wealthy Americans need to pay more taxes, and begin to pay off the deficit they voted for) shows the powerful presence of trickle-down policy in American economics today.
The photo at the top of this page shows Ayn Rand and her close friend and prize student Alan Greenspan, along with their spouses, visiting President Gerald Ford in 1974. Alan Greenspan had just been appointed chairman of Ford's council of economic advisors, and would eventually go on to run the Federal Reserve Bank under Ronald Reagan. Greenspan was not a strict Objectivist -- a strict Objectivist could never endure the endless compromises of real-world politics -- but his vision of deregulated and hyper-charged American capitalism was highly consistent with Ayn Rand's economic philosophy. That was nearly forty years ago. The important question today isn't whether or not Paul Ryan intends to bring Ayn Rand into the White House. The important question is: what do we have to do to finally get Ayn Rand out of the White House, and out of Congress?
I'm going to be taking a break here on Litkicks for the month of August, and the blog will be back in a slightly transformed condition by the beginning of September. I'll explain more about my new direction during the next few days, but the basic idea is that I'm tweaking the formula to include more of what works on the site and less of what doesn't.
As for this Philosophy Weekend series, I'm sure my philosophical readers will be happy with the changes, since this is one part of the site that has shown a lot of life, and I certainly plan to continue the weekend series.
Before I step into the redesign cocoon and disappear for a month, I wanted to lay down a few progress markers to reflect the current state of various discussions we've been conducting here on Philosophy Weekend. Here are our main threads, as I see them:
Cal Godot asked a good question in response to last weekend's post. When I use the terms "will" and "desire" in the context of ethical philosophy, am I using the terms interchangeably?
Yes, in a strict logical sense, I am using the terms interchangeably. Both "will" and "desire" point to the same thing, the same mysterious and omnipresent phenomenon of human (and animal) life. Yet there is a world of difference between will and desire.
The difference is not in the thing the words points to, but in the connotations captured along the way. The term "will" calls to mind three provocative philosophical texts that have become classics of the modern Western tradition: Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Presentation, Friedrich Nietzsche's The Will to Power and William James's essay collection The Will to Believe. Thus, "will" connotes European romanticism, existentialism and American Pragmatism. It carries a muscular, vigorous, dramatic and conflict-ridden sense. It feels Napoleonic and Apollonian.
I was contemplating the mysteries of life while lying in a hammock in the relaxing Indiana backyard of my wife Caryn's family home when an answer I'd been seeking suddenly came to me.
As you know if you've been reading these Philosophy Weekend posts, I've been trying to put together a couple of puzzle pieces. First, a question I've asked repeatedly: what is the relationship of desire to our sense of self? Second, the most central question we've been debating since the inception of this blog series: to what extent does a group self, or a shared self, or a collective self, exist in everyday human life, and what does it mean to speak of a group self or collective self?
What suddenly occurred to me, as I lay on this hammock during the cooling early twilight hours of a stunningly hot summer day that kept us all indoors until the sun went down, is that these two separate puzzle pieces fit together. In fact, they fit together so well that I must have subconsciously understood the connection all along, even though I didn't realize it consciously.
What I now see is a formula (or, if you prefer, an argument) that answers my second question by answering the first. Here, in the simplest words I can manage, is the formula. Please note that I do not claim to have an absolute proof for either of the two premises numbered 1. and 2. below. It is up to each reader to weigh whether or not each premise is possible, plausible and compelling. I do believe that the two premises together form a ladder to a surprising conclusion (3.). So, here goes:
Okay, enough about what the US Supreme Court's historic ruling to uphold Obamacare means for the country. Let's talk about what our reaction told us about us. It sure was a strange reaction.
The decision was scheduled to be announced on Thursday morning, June 28, starting at 10:am. The first few sentences of the announcement appeared a few minutes later on the SCOTUSblog live stream, and as soon as the first sentences appeared, public hysteria ensued.
At least a full half hour of absolute hysteria followed, mostly caused by the fact that two cable news networks, CNN and Fox News, reported incorrectly that Obamacare had been overturned. The confusion was cleared up quickly, but now everybody was confused, and somehow the hysterical pitch of the first few minutes became the de facto tone of the news coverage for the entire day.
Even today, two days later, there is still an undertone of shock to all coverage and discussion of the Supreme Court verdict -- appreciative and relieved shock on the pro-Obamacare side, and indignant, infuriated shock on the anti- side.
I wasn't shocked. I've been following the healthcare debate closely for years, and I know the bill had been carefully designed to make it through the Supreme Court (the Obama administration is not stupid, after all). I was amazed that so many allegedly knowledgeable people were predicting that the Supreme Court would find ACA unconstitutional, because anybody who knows the history of the US Supreme Court knows how unusual a decision to overturn a law on such optional grounds would have been. The Supreme Court (as Chief Justice John Roberts would finally explain in his preamble) doesn't have a history of challenging legislation at this level, and makes an effort to steer clear of partisan politics. The honor and reputation of the court would clearly be at stake if it made a dramatic decision to overturn such a major piece of legislation, and it was Chief Justice John Roberts's responsibility above all to defend the integrity of the Supreme Court by moving cautiously.
I don't think we really want to solve the puzzle of desire. What would we do afterwards? But the puzzle seems to be impossible to solve anyway, so we can enjoy pondering it forever. Here's a passage that caught my attention in "Variations on Desire", the opening piece in Siri Hustvedt's appealing new collection of essays, Living, Thinking, Looking.
There are three misconceptions about philosophy that I'd like to clear up today. The first is that it's an academic discipline, carried out by professors and graduate students in quarterlies and journals while the rest of us breathlessly await reports of their findings. Actually, many people like me who care about philosophy don't pay any attention to the back-and-forth of insular academic journals. If anything useful emerges from one of these journals, we figure, we'll eventually read about it on a blog. This doesn't happen, we notice, very often.
It is a fact that many professors call themselves philosophers, and that some top professors at top colleges consider themselves very important philosophers. But there is little evidence that any academic work is getting noticed in the real world, and philosophy is thoroughly concerned with the real world. It's a telling fact that the most popular American philosopher of the past hundred years, Ayn Rand (who I have been knocking myself out here to refute) was not an academic, and also that the most popular European philosopher of the past two hundred years, Friedrich Nietzsche (who I have been knocking myself out to promote) began his career as an academic, but only managed to find a reading audience after leaving the University of Basel and slowly going insane, at the same time writing the great non-academic works that made him a star.
I hope the philosophy professors in all the colleges of the world are doing a great job teaching their students (this is, after all, the primary responsibility of a college professor). But as for the original work they are doing, it's mostly fan-fiction as far as I can tell. Lots of words, very little impact.
Our search for a great living ethical philosopher has so far turned up empty. We're only at the early stages of the search, having recently examined the work of Alain De Botton and Sam Harris, both of them young trendy philosophers who swing in the TED set. But preliminary results have been worrying.
We like the aesthetic approach of Alain De Botton, who has bold, fanciful ideas about many things. However, a close look shows that artistry may be all he has. De Botton has written books (mostly to polite applause) on moral philosophy, but he appears to be too much of a wonderer, and not enough of a fighter, to make his name in the muscular field of ethical debate. De Botton clearly likes to dress himself up in a philosopher's antique clothes, but one senses that it's all some kind of fetching show. A great philosopher? Not yet.
The young atheist firebrand Sam Harris is refreshingly pugnacious and argumentative, and he can turn a sharp phrase. But he's also unimaginative and unperceptive. He has lately specialized in "rational" Koran-bashing, with the upturned chin of a brave sophomore who isn't going to pussyfoot around this. Reading Sam Harris's angry diatribes about fundamentalist Islam, or about religion in general, one can't help feeling that one understands more about human nature than Sam Harris does, and that Sam Harris ought to be listening to all of us instead of the other way around. A great living philosopher? In his dreams.
After these bruising early results, I decided to get away from the hip young TED familiars and focus next on some heavier weights. I've been reading up on Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Derek Parfit, Slavoj Zizek and Sarah Sawyer, and hope to cover them all soon. However, two separate links to the work of a Virginia author named Jonathan Haidt appeared in two of my favorite blogs, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish and the Maverick Philosopher, and caught my attention. As far as appearances go, Haidt is another trendy young TED-ish ethics guy. However, he is showing signs of a wider mind. Even though he wears the same clothes:
I'm only two chapters into Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, so I won't try to say much about him in my own words today. But many others have recently noticed Jonathan Haidt too, and I'd like to share a few pullquotes.