Phenomenological Moral Supervenient Realism

I am trying to explore whether or not any of this makes sense.

First, as everybody may know by now, I defend a version of moral realism rooted in Scheler’s phenomenology. Let’s review what these theses are.


1. Being-in-an-act manifests value in the world in affective intentionality. The material-content of values is based in intentional-feeling.

2. For Scheler, the higher modes of feeling are independent of physical organization. The spiritual life of value and feeling are not reducible to any other lower form of organization.

3. Being-in-an-act is the mode of affective intentionality that opens us up to value’s possibility or impossibility; the corresponding modes of being that realize value are love, which opens us up to value, and hatred that closes us off from value. These are separate modes of feeling.

4. The co-operation of intrapersonal relationships can either realize more love or hatred into the world, and thus either ascend in value-rankings or descrend value-rankings.

Because Scheler’s phenomenology ontologizes human feelings, I have been thinking about how to classify this value-ontoloy beyond the label participatory realism I concluded in my dissertation. Needless to say, participatory realism is the thesis that values are realized by a subject’s participation in affective intentionality, and through affective intentionality, values constitute either a person, good, or deed–what could be viewed in 1-4. The real answer turns on how exactly to interpret phenomenological constitution. Constitution is a concrete language about feeling and participation/realization of value into being. Yet, there are limits to this type of language. Let me spell out a possible objection to my project I find worthwhile to think about.

If someone had said to me “I get that you have discovered value ontology in Scheler in being-an-act and you claim that intentional constitution of the feeling act are responsible for value’s realization”, then all I have done is passed the buck of value ontology on the back of Scheler’s conception of affective intentionality. Let us assume I answer by explaining that affective intentionality, like all other intentionalities, transforms the quality of intended objects in time. This transformation or shaping an intentional objects meaning by an intentional act is called “constitution.” The apple is given to me as valuable in vital feeling; I am hungry and have not eaten breakfast. If I do not eat, I will remain hungry and the second option of looking at the apple as not delicious might appeal on a sensible level. Even if I do not like apples, the higher value of my anticipated need to eat as an organism in an environing world should take hold of even the lower value, especially if my access to food is limited.  Husserl claims that constitution is the sui generis of meaning. Originally conceived as a temporal constitution, the meaning of some phenomena are rooted in their disclosure in time to being experienced. If that’s truly the case, then I have just opened up my account to an objection of passing the buck. Now, it’s the constitutional power of affective intentionality that is responsible for value’s being.

Identifying the phenomenological reasons for why something exists indicates thinking about phenomenology as more than just a series of descriptions about experience within a certain relation. Instead, the most fundamental relationship we have to value is feeling act–value correlate relation. At its root, the ontology of value is fundamentally relational, and that’s why it took great pains to figure out exactly what I thought about value for the past several years. Moreover, the version of moral realism I am after is a concrete, dynamic, and relational, not concrete, static and independent. There is no strong mind-independence. There is only a commitment to the fact that human beings experience the world in such a similar way that claims about value can be concrete in the phenomenological disclosed process of experience (I realize how problematic and ontologically-laden the term “process” is). However, how do I cash out this explanation of an ontology of relations? Last time (in the dissertation), I borrowed from Heidegger. I thought of Scheler’s affective intentionality as Befindlichkeit  and how we can think of phenomenology as a way to disclose a fundamental ontology of how we are in the world. Here, I want to borrow from supervenience and interpret intentional constitution as a form of supervenience, and William James’s neutral monism.

At first glance, this move might seem strange, so let me clarify. Typically, in philosophy of mind non-reductive physicalists use supervenience to talk about functionalist account of mind. In that way, we can say the mental state functions in such and such a way without being committed to a non-natural conception that we’re talking about the functions of a soul or monad. We are only talking about minds in the physical world. We can say that the mental supervenes on the physical. Such an account is uni-directional. If we were idealists, we could say that the physical supervenes on the mental, and we would get a version of idealism, I suppose. Again, such an account would be uni-directional. The end of the supervenience relation is the primary stuff we take to be the most fundamental. Throwing neutral monism into the mix only adds to the confusion as to how supervenience could properly function.

Neutral monism is the thesis that the world can appear as either fundamentally mental or fundamentally physical. For James, the purpose of my relation is directed by me, and so how I come to regard these relations has more to do with the purpose I assign in thinking one stuff more fundamental than the other. For example, the living room may appear to me in mind as a memory when I am trying to recall where I put my wallet. I am at work and cannot readily go home anytime soon to see if my wallet is in the living. If I am permitted to go home, I can walk into the same living room. When I walk into the living room, the living room is now more a physical object than a psychic content recalled through memory. Accordingly, the ontological neutrality of the living room is clear. The role the concept of living room plays has to do with my purpose. Both purposes are so plausible that we cannot assign either the concept or the percept more ontological priority. James is clear that we should remain neutral. There is only one type of stuff. Both concept and percept are the stuff of pure experience.

How does neutral monism about the stuff of pure experience help us regarding the constituting/constituted relation in phenomenology that I have claimed is at bottom of value ontology? The answer is basically that there are two directional supervenient relations occurring at the same time. The intentional object or percept is constituting how I may experience it, and in that way the constituting relation is an ontological and therefore supervenient relation as well. The objective complex of the experience may already be decided already and I happen upon these complexes. For instance, I do not re-constituted a new meaning out of a stop sign when driving on a road. I accept its already constituted status and find it constituting me. As a driver, I do not regularly run stop signs. However, my intentional feeling can also supervene or constitute how I feel about this particular stop sign. Say my parents died in a car crash at this stop sign, and so I cannot help but feel like avoiding this place. I could actively decide to take alternative routes and avoid how I feel towards it. In either case, some elements of experience find more prominence in the purpose they are serving in my experience. The reason why I think Husserl can claim ontological neutrality about the constituting/constituted relation of the intentional act and intended object is to think that there are two simultaneous supervenient relations canceling each other out. One must also be thinking that intend objects are just not constituted but constitute acts as well.

With respect to moral claims, we make ought-claims rooted in feeling. We participate in affective intentionality to realize values into the world since only persons can realize value. This relation is more on the side of feeling acts than it is on the goods of the world that are experienced as valuable. Still, every moral judgment that comes out of this value-experiencing, and moral judgments are always thick as Bernard Williams will put it. Ought-claims have a descriptive-component and an evaluative-component. If I say, “You ought to attend class more,” then I am claiming empirically I have observed you not attending class as you should, and secondly, I am evaluating the “should” part of attending class more regularly might help your performance. Such moral judgments are thick and deeply relational. As such, only an ontology rooted in relational concepts can adequately describe values. Therefore, I am a realist about the process of experiencing values as many Peirceans are realists about firstness.


Concerns About the Necessity of Philosophy Rankings

There is a lot of news about Leiter’s recent treatment of those on the periphery of the profession. Even the articulation of the fact that there is a periphery accepts the already apparent inscribed exclusion this post concerns.

I am worried about reinstating rankings, and think we should just give up on the idea completely. Let’s just be honest. Ranking is a political activity even if the ranking is not obviously political and meant more to inform “prospective students” about graduate study. The norms of ranking cannot help but be anything more than transforming of philosophy as a discipline into marketing campaigns in which graduate departments worry about how they are perceived by prospective consumers. The politics of listing and ranking involve the very type of instrumental thinking some of us on the Left actively resist in other areas of our lives. So, when Leiter would blog about party-line Continentalism, his blog was connected to his rankings concerning what Continental philosophy was, and his activities regretfully unethical behavior may be connected to the idiocy of not wanting to be perceived in such and such a way like a company exec worried about the perception of consumers viewing their product. When the Pluralist Guide to Philosophy came out, such a ranking was in response to the perceptive effects that Leiter’s ranking had on the perception of “outlier” and “periphery” schools like competitive companies wanting to make inroads with consumers that their departments (and analogously their products like myself from SIU) weren’t so bad either. I wonder if this market-based thinking didn’t remain implicit when it combined with power and ego in Leiter’s vicious e-mail to Noelle Mcafee of Emory. He called her department, Emory’s Philosophy Department, “a shit department.”

As an implicit effect of power’s working behind the scenes, a Foucauldian worry is still very adamant. The fact of ranking will reinscribe the same power relations in more muted but similar (if not identical forms) that govern the perceptions and inform gatekeepers of the profession. The fact that such a ranking is shared with an editorial board, even if they are more pluralistic (and I admit I don’t know exactly what it might mean to even count as “pluralistic”), there will be a power differential that will give rise to exclusion. Some departments with really great philosophers will be devalued in any such ranking. The power differential will be their lurking implicitly and never acknowledged, but operating in some way. This claim would be true even if Continental departments acquired power over analytics; the same exclusion, I fear, would be present. I have always had a hard time with that since the necessity of ranking permeates everybody’s perception about what truly constitutes philosophy, and this will not change even if people are nicer about it (and by “nicer” I mean taking the rankings away from Leiter and instituting a board, even if the content of the board changes to a more inclusive approach). The PGR divided philosophy along the lines of Leiter’s bias to the point that the organization of SPEP, the very organization that has some of the world’s leading specialists in Husserl and Heidegger in constant attendance from North American and Europe, was portrayed as a constant outlier–even though the organization has been running for the last 50 years. The same will be true of American philosophers as much as will be true of Indian and Chinese specialists, that is, if the status-quo continued with a predominant analytic gatekeepers remain.

Leiter is not critical of his own enterprise. Even now, he negotiates this topic on his blog by calling his critics a campaign. He is not apologetic about how he negotiates that power, but leverages everything against those that disagree with him. That’s not very virtuous and unbecoming of anyone that thinks they are philosopher.

Edits to the Pittsburgh Talk on Caputo, Ethics, and Obligation

I will be giving a talk on the first half of one the chapters I am adding to my book “Continental Anti-Realism on Value.” I’ve uploaded a newer and more revised version to my page. I’ve been rushed to get it done and finished so I can move onto other self-imposed projects and deadlines. You’ll notice that I have not given an interpretation of Caputo as an anti-realist about value, though such an insight just may logically follow by adopting deconstructionist constraint on metaphysics.

I do not hold “value theory” in high regard either, which is form me just more “ethics,” i.e., more metaphysics…I am not prepared to turn over the question of “obligation” to value theory. I do not regard the bond that binds obligation to disaster to be a matter of a “value” we should “hold” or a “claim” we “make.” Obligation is rather—this is what a poetics of obligations brings out and where it starts—a matter of being claimed, in which something has a hold on us, something that is older than us, that has us before we have it.[i]

[i] Caputo, Against, 31.

For Caputo, ethics just amounts to more unwanted metaphysics. In my talk, I attempt to establish the main crux I have with Caputo’s pronouncements against ethics and obligation, but also try to accommodate some of what he claims against ethics. For him, obligations just happen. They occur under their own power, and they compel and bind us from behind without our choosing. And if we are honest about that, then ethics has nothing to hold onto. At best, all ethics could be is a reification of these disclosive events of comingg to feel and understand the power and allure of obligation on us. In this way, you could say that Caputo may be right about institutional ethics, but not accurate about a form of ethics that could very well meet his overall criticism, i.e., phenomenological ethics. If phenomenological ethics is a form of moral realism about the status of value, and particularist about the role such values play in moral life, then even a more nuanced criticism of Caputo should be offered by him rather than the tout court criticism he offers through deconstructionism. Caputo is too big for his own britches against ethics.

I am still open to criticism and commentary. Part of writing this blog is to receive more commentary on one’s work, share it, improve it, revise it, and offer the same for others. However, I am learning that people are way too busy, that nobody cares to foster or cultivate their art of communicating philosophy on their own, let alone read what I write about Caputo. I feel this to be contrary to my interest in attempting to become a better philosopher, the interest of others, and fostering the love of philosophy in my daily life. Even though it is one of my greatest joys in life, philosophy is becoming slightly alienating since nobody practices the Deweyan adage of being “part of a community of inquirers” they have chosen to espouse professionally.

There is no community at the edges of the profession, and more of us are on the edge, on the precipice looking into it.

The Philosopher and Culture: How We Should Regard the Tension Between Adorno and Benjamin

Alex Ross has a lovely essay in the New Yorker about Adorno and Benjamin, and their relationship to popular culture. In this post, I do not want to echo Ross’s gleaning insights about them. Ross is right about their necessity. Instead, I want to cite at length a passage that elicits much for me.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, free-market capitalism had triumphed, and no one seemed badly hurt. In light of recent events, however, it may be time to unpack those texts again. Economic and environmental crisis, terrorism and counterterrorism, deepening inequality, unchecked tech and media monopolies, a withering away of intellectual institutions, an ostensibly liberating Internet culture in which we are constantly checking to see if we are being watched: none of this would have surprised the prophets of Frankfurt, who, upon reaching America, failed to experience the sensation of entering Paradise. Watching newsreels of the Second World War, Adorno wrote, “Men are reduced to walk-on parts in a monster documentary film which has no spectators, since the least of them has his bit to do on the screen.” He would not revise his remarks now.

In this passage, the necessity to revive Leftist critiques of our contemporary situation is mediated by both Adorno and Benjamin’s reactions to popular culture.

The Frankfurt School, which arose in the early nineteen-twenties, never presented a united front; it was, after all, a gaggle of intellectuals. One zone in which they clashed was that of mass culture. Benjamin saw the popular arena as a potential site of resistance, from which left-leaning artists like Charlie Chaplin could transmit subversive signals. Adorno and Horkheimer, by contrast, viewed pop culture as an instrument of economic and political control, enforcing conformity behind a permissive screen. The “culture industry,” as they called it, offered the “freedom to choose what is always the same.”

There are two directions we could take culture: 1. Culture as a site of necessary resistance, or 2. Culture is an instrument of economic and political control enforcing conformity to subjugating values. Before touching these options, let me share with you some thoughts about crisis to which 1 and 2 are only responses to.


As such, the question this post faces falls on exactly how a philosopher should relate to an American culture devoid of Adorno or Benjamin’s Leftism. How do we as philosophers relate to culture? We are in constant crisis to which maybe Husserl’s crisis of spirit was just a prelude to the more material crises of global terrorism, poverty and inequality, monopolized media corporations that own political discourse, and an internet culture obsessed with the consumption of questionable goods and female bodies. On my reading, Husserl picked up on the cultural spirit animating Western rationality. When there is no more insight to be gleaned from the subject, when the subject disappears as a cultural ideal, then so too does the person qua subject. That opens all types of cultural possibilities of exploitation. Persons are no longer subjects; they are no longer treated as the sources of meaning in the world. Even though phenomenologically I accept the previous sentence as a truism, the West has created a culture that delimits the value of persons in many ways socially, politically, and economically. Let’s leave it aside whether a politics of the Right or the Left are the best ways to ameliorate that de-personalization. In The Crisis of the European Sciences, Husserl merely picked upon the de-personalizing tendencies of Western culture that percolate into the material cultural. The need for moralizing has never been greater.

For some philosophers, culture is a bad word. It is the rabble, unsophisticated and dirty “folk.” Philosophy purges folk beliefs and intuitions and clarifies our shared thinking with rationality, and in this way, philosophy is antagonistic to culture. This antagonism is the source of a critique against analytic philosophy made popular by John McCumber’s Time in a Ditch. Analytic philosophy of the 1940s and 1950s sought to contemplate de-politicized problems because of the unwanted attention Leftist intellectuals garnered during McCarthyism. At that point, the subject of philosophy and philosophers became divorced from cultural life.

However, readers here know that I do not disentangle culture from the purpose of reflection. At the heart of pragmatic commitment, if not metaphilosophical commitment, we reflect upon the purposes to which we assign experience. We are to be experimental with our analyses. We ought to project our thoughts onto culture, and the philosopher should be an exemplar of insight to those not thinking. There are people who merely absorb the world in terms of its consumption. They cannot reach the abstract conceptions of pure intellectual enterprise. Why should we demand of everyone that ability? Instead, let a thousand flowers bloom. Let’s return to 1 and 2 above.

1 and 2 are responses to de-personalizing elements of culture. First and foremost, culture is a site of resistance only against a culture that threatens the person and its inherent dignity. When de-personalization carries onward, when the source of it is left unchecked, there is no resistance to speak for the person, but resistance itself can be found wanting. In some ways, the Left exposes the cultural elements that threaten the person, and the Right exposes the need for freedom of the person, even if the Right can only articulate a watered-down expression of self-determination in entrepreneurial form. They at least acknowledge the necessity for freedom. But freedom and resistance mean little if not guided by higher purpose to which the value of the person is the highest expression. The person is the source of all value, and delimiting the value of the locus and bearer of values harms us all. In acknowledging that, we should see Adorno and Benjamin as offering two sides of the same coin.

So as to end this post, here’s an image of Harvey Dent flipping his coin:

Phenomenology and Moral Realism

My engagement with Scheler’s work led me to conclude a particular version of moral realism that I have spent great pains trying to articulate to those outside of phenomenology; I call it participatory realism. Values are brought into being via the constituting function of affective intentionality that underlies all experiencing and then realized into the world through our shared comportment and feeling-directedness of these experiences. Action and feeling cannot be explained without this meaning-bestowing function of affective intentionality just as much as the often naturalist cannot explain away the fact that scientific knowledge is a subjective accomplishment of an intentionally-directed transcendental ego (See David Carr’s work for a systematic reversal of priority of explanation that shifts the burden to the naturalist and not the phenomenologist, the source of meaning is the first-personal subject, not the world). Persons participate in their own emotional life and the life of others. In Scheler’s language, we participate in the intentional feelings acts of ourselves as persons and intentional feeling opens us up to a whole sphere and range of other moral acts we feel. Some of these intentional acts have no content and efficacy if others are not present. Scheler calls these intentional acts social acts. For example, love always requires an other (it’s a separate question whether that other is an impersonal other like a nation, or a clan, or a pesonal other like someone’s partner). 

In this post, I am really trying to get clear on what participatory realism is not. In one version of moral realism, moral properties are non-natural. Consider Allan Gibbard in the 2011 Oxford Studies in Metaethics in his “How Much Realism.” 

Many of us find non-naturalism baffling. I do take myself to understand talk of warrant and of reasons to do a thing or believe things. I am puzzled, though, why I should think that the universe contains properties that are non-natural, or how a primitive non-naturalistic concept could be a legitimate part of our thinking (p. 34-35)

Gibbard is just about to explain what he failed to do in his 2003 book, Thinking How to Live, and how he thinks that some of what the non-naturalists find intuitive can be explained by introducing directive concepts. We evolved to have “directive concepts.” They are to feature in our actions. Normative beliefs are part of a “normative control system” that we all have “as part of our psychic make-up, but it can be overwhelmed by appetite, dread, and the like” (35). In this way, normative beliefs are much more restrictions on our acting and deliberations. Notice here that the philosophizing isn’t bad. Gibbard is clear, concise, and succinct in his thinking, a thinking that resists non-natural concepts altogether, yet admits several claims about moral concepts that seek to explain moral experience. However, this last feature desideratum is where  analytic ethics fail completely (or at the very least where I have always been most dissatisfied, but our dissatisfaction is the place where critical engagement starts).

Ethicists, like Gibbard, fail to have a way to verify the assumptions they make about moral experience, but assume a conceptual fit of the philosophical concepts they employ in speculation in relation to moral experience. Insofar as the moral concepts fit within the stated naturalistic worldview. “I won’t be discussing how evolutionary theory might explain proclivities of moral judgment…Rather, I’ll suppose evolution, social history, and the like explain causally what we are like” (33). Gibbard and other ethicists never look to moral experience itself. He will just assume that these third-personal descriptive accounts provide adequate explanation for the contents of first-personal experience. He will just assume “what we are like.” That’s phenomenologically irresponsible, and metaphysically dangerous to handwave the demand for a detailed philosophical anthropology as well as not to consider the insights experience furnishes to us.

While I often lay this charge at the feet of analytic ethicists, especially Gibbard and Harman, they are not entirely to blame. Indeed, Husserl’s efforts have gone unheeded in many circles, but one area where his thought is extremely poignant is showing that philosophy cannot be wholly naturalized. Human life is lived in conscious relation to a world. We find our thoughts directed into that world, and every naturalistic insight finds expression in the first-personal dimension of experiencing the world of persons, values, and action. As such, while naturalists like Gibbard and Harman think they can assume the metaphysical picture to which ethicists and metaethicists should direct their thinking, the transcendental demand of experience would claim otherwise. Only phenomenology can meet that demand, and this explains why it is necessary to bring Scheler into contact with thinkers like Gibbard and Harman.

Let me summarize what I have done thus far. I have attempted to use just one example of Gibbard to gesture as to why the problems of value ontology cannot merely be settled by making claims about experience. Instead, there is an explanatory dimension experience furnishes that cannot be presupposed. In fact, Gibbard’s entire account of a nomrative control system would have to be vindicated by experience. All efforts in ethics are meant to solve the problems of practical lived-experience. Now, I will move onto the two ways in which thinkers have regarded non-natural properties. T

Typically, non-natural properties are simple or primitive. Gibbard is right at least in this (34). By simple, it has no other further parts, and in saying it’s primitive it can’t be explained further. If we take away the word “property” and add quality away from values and substitute “non-natural” for “phenomenological”, we would get a position identical to Scheler (and what I am calling participatory realism). Actions, goods, persons all are given to us as valueable, that is, they all are given in terms of a value-quality. However, the incomplete feature of simply talking about the objects of value means that moral realists are always trapped in a desire for mind-independence. Yet, if value-qualities are experienced as the phenomenologist insists, then there must be a reference point, a touchstone in experience, to which the phenomenologst can describe how these value-qualities are given, and low and behold, emotional life is relevant to both Scheler and myself for this reason. Value-qualities only come to be “known” in how they are felt. Therefore, value-ontology must at least start with the phenomenological necessity to explain experience and locate experienced feature in experience.

That will end the meandering for now.

Changing the Landscape of Philosophy for the Better

This morning on my way to John Carroll, I heard an news story. When applied it to my own profession, more questions than answers were generated. Here’s the NPR story.

More women are acquiring higher honors and education, and even in North America, more women are graduating from universities than men in general. However, there’s evidence to suggest that these honors, education, and accomplishments generate more negative work evaluations from heterosexist male supervisors when they review them. Left unmentioned in the news story is a relevant contrast of a female supervisor evaluating similarly high honored women versus the men of this study. This study comes out of the London Business School.

So the question about the philosophy profession should be put to us. When sexist men are on hiring committees, does a similar effect happen when those men review the credentials of an accomplished female candidate? How about tenure review committees? How about other similarly gender imbalanced humanities subjects? There are lots of questions here.

I will admit ignorance about these scenarios since I am ignorant of what goes on behind closed doors of search committees. I’m still looking to crack that ceiling, but I think the findings of this study could well be tested in various professions, including our own.

Unit on Epistemology

I cover a basic theory of the external world unit in my introductory class. In epistemology, my students and I talk about failures in perception as either counting for reasons to be skeptical, or at least open to the fact that we should be humble about what we are most certain about in perception cases. And today, I saw this floating around the internet.

Needless to say, this video is madly philosophical for all things epistemic.

I really like my classes this semester.

The Ruins of John Huddle’s “After the Dark”: A Critical Movie Review

In this post, I will review John Huddle’s cluelessly crafted After the Dark. 220px-Philosophers-promotional-posterIn Europe, the movie is titled: The Philosophers, which I just find despicable and ironic about how little understanding of philosophy is in the film. The philosophy in the film is atrocious. Usually, I leave movie reviews to newspapers and online magazines, but unfortunately, this movie is about a philosophy class in an international school in Jakarta. The film’s narrative and characterization of philosophy are troubling to a public possibly ignorant of philosophy, so I react to this movie as a professional philosopher.

The movie has received mixed reviews, but of those that have reviewed it positively, they never comment on the substantive issues of philosophy. Yet, there are those reviews that get it right. Consider Nicholas Rapold’s devastating review in the New York Times:

Slack acting (perhaps aggravated by the harsh lighting design) and the script’s inability to build characters together vaporize the chances for the movie, which is both smugly clever and at times distastefully clueless. There’s a genuine nerdy satisfaction in seeing the bunker conundrum played out completely, as if on an after-school show from Mars. But the deadening classroom story frame makes one wonder why Mr. Huddles didn’t simply commit to one hell on earth and do it well.

Needless to say, spoilers follow. You have been warned.

The premise of the movie is about a philosophy teacher and the last day of class for his graduating seniors. Mr. Zimit teaches his 20 students different thought experiments, and this movie is about the last day of class in which the students run through what we might know as “lifeboat ethics” or problems of scarcity and resource allocation. The thought experiments are all the same. They are three different scenarios in which the students are given a profession and personal details, and they must choose who will stay in a bunker during an atomic attack. The movie lives out the students living out this thought experiment. That’s where the classroom ethos of good teaching and the movie turn sour.

Morally Questionable Teaching and Classroom Gender

As the students play out the thought experiment in the bunker, personal lives are revealed. The students contemplate who will sleep with whom, and the teacher even enters a simulated rape of one unwilling female since the thought experiment is living out the scenario. Keep in mind, this movie is taking place in a preparatory high school environment, and already the inappropriate nature of a thought experiment is being twisted from something thought experiments are never employed to do (more on that in a minute). Let alone the depiction of female roles in the philosophy classroom and thought experiment is highly questionable.

The best student in the class, a female named Petra, is threatened by Mr. Zimit in her final rendition of the thought experiment. He threatens her with reducing her grade from an A+ to a B simply because he is having difficulty with Petra’s version of the final scenario. But what is more disturbing is that the best student in the class is sleeping with the instructor, and the thought experiment is a way to retaliate against Petra’s love interest. The female student is not even known for “her mind” alone, and Mr. Zimit, standing in as a philosopher, is revealed to be a controlling, manipulative, and underhanded teacher—the very type of teacher that would be fired for moral turpitude clauses at any university today.

The True Role of Thought Experiments

During the movie, the beginning thought experiments are filmed in twenty-second scenarios, and that’s the level they should have remained throughout the entire film, even when we got to the post-apocalyptic scenarios. In the philosophy classroom, students never roleplay out thought experiments. Instead, thought experiments are imagined scenarios used to test out the conceivablility and intuitions concerning certain philosophical theses. However, they must be understood appropriately within the context of philosophy under discussion. Huddles botches this severely. For example, when Huddles articulates Judith Jarvis Thomson’s trolley problem. The distinction between initiating harm (the fat man case) and lessening a harm underway (switching the track from killing 5 tied to the track to killing 1 instead) are not revealed in the two versions of the trolley problem.

The onlooker simply gets the impression that philosophy is about roleplaying through ideas, or just coming up with strangely cool thought experiments. There is little, if any, genuine philosophy discussed, and the unknowing spectator will be misled by what philosophy really is. This serious misrepresentation might also be a result of Huddles not understanding philosophy either. The movie’s substance philosophically is as if Huddles got one of those discount books off the shelf at Barnes and Noble about philosophy. It soon becomes obvious that he (along with the movie producers) never research what the function of thought experiments are within philosophy nor how they are employed pedagogically in the classroom.

The Nature of Philosophy

It’s hard to put into words what exactly philosophy is. It’s one of the most intriguing questions: What is philosophy? For pedagogical purposes, I always use the following definition. Philosophy is the intellectual use of the imagination to solve problems that cannot be solved by faith, common sense, or science alone. These problems tend to recur in philosophical imagination. With that said, there is a historical trajectory of these problems just as much as there are timeless abstractions that call us to think about them. The movie tends to the latter without ever addressing the former, and this just becomes another example of Huddles “getting it wrong.”

During the movie, Mr. Zimit uses Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to insult a privileged mediocre student, the very same student that is in love with Petra. We are thrown back with the students in the cave. The scene lasts for about 30 seconds, and we flash into the classroom. Mr. Zimit tells the young man that he is like man trapped and chained to the wall–half aware of life and unaware that he is blind to the cruelties of life. All of this is in the service of Mr. Zimit’s jealously that Petra loves him. There is no context introduced as to what Plato’s cave means. There is no discussion about the Forms, the education of the soul, the lovers of sight and sound from the preceding Book VI…nothing.


In summary, this movie fails on two fronts. First, it fails to understand proper pedagogy in the classroom. It brings up gender worries about its depiction of the best student is simultaneously the love interest of the instructor. One wonders at the possible message that sends, even if the movie producers do not know about the troubles that belabor the profession. Secondly, in failing to articulate proper pedagogy of an instructor, the movie producers and Huddles miss what thought experiments do and the relevant nature of philosophy that could have made this movie better than it is.

In the end, however, the movie is a superficial attempt at achieving depth by thinking the mere mention of ideas is deep. There are plenty of people who are convinced of the depth of mentioning their thoughts, but do not learn how to think about them at all. Huddles seems to be one of them–empty like this movie. This movie is as empty of substance as the referent of “unicorn” is empty of a referent in the empirical world. It is atrocious and once again proves why the world needs philosophy. The worlds needs philosophy because people cannot read critically. That’s the only conceivable explanation why Huddle fails to understand what philosophy is and how it is taught.