The Malaise of Philosophy’s Relevance: An Answer to an Anonymous Analytic Friend Why He Ought to Read More Continental Philosophy

imagesI know it’s controversial and puts me into an old category subjected to the egos of a previous war, a war waged by those on and off my dissertation committee, a war that caught pragmatists in the middle, and a label not even invented by whatever Continental philosophy is since the label is the “miscellaneous” category invented by analytic philosophers to organize labor about what they should dismiss than know about. A friend recently commented and said that I tend to borrow and be influenced by Continental Philosophy more so than whatever holds for analytic philosophy (there are notable exceptions like W. D. Ross and Rosalind Hursthouse, but ethicists are largely the exception in my thinking); I may even be disparaging about analytic philosophy from time to time, and yet some friendships continue in recognition of the contentious nature of philosophy itself. The analytic friend asked me why he ought to study Continental philosophy even if he conceded the caricature given below. Here’s my attempt at answering that question very loosely.

The largest reason I have never been persuaded about the alleged superiority of analytic philosophy is (and has always been) how unthematized experience is; left unrefined and barren, ignoring experience divorces philosophy from the relevance of living a transformed life by philosophy. Recently, Walter Sinnot-Armstrong wrote an essay at Daily Nous where he claimed:

Because of these potential applications [in the previous paragraph to this one, Sinnot-Armstrong shows the pragmatic relevance to some classic analytic questions], there must be some way for philosophers to show why and how philosophy is important and to do so clearly and concisely enough that non-philosophers can come to appreciate the value of philosophy. There also must be some way to write philosophy in a lively and engaging fashion, so that the general public will want to read it. A few philosophers already do this. Their examples show that others could do it, but not enough philosophers follow their models. The profession needs to enable and encourage more philosophers to reach beyond the profession.

In analytic philosophy I hate how ahistoric and wrongheaded thinking of philosophy as an aspiring science is, how the solving of narrow problems as if philosophy should ignore the deeply existential and pragmatic concerns of life. When analytic philosophy doesn’t ignore the existential and pragmatic concerns of life, analytic philosophers enter a realm of the living subject, the practical agent, and it’s the sphere of value theory I’ve never taken issue with that undergirds much of the same area of agreement and engagement with my work. Instead, it has always been their myopic focus and inability to contextualize their relevance to the ongoing history of their own development. Like the science they admire, analytic philosophers seek to move forward, make progress on problems, and always look to the future at the expense of the present and past that configures their own possibility.

Of course, there are exceptions, and in many ways, analytic philosophy is dissipating to an awareness of other approaches. I know more analytically-trained philosophers reaching out to sources beyond their training, but such outreach and cooperation can only be sustained if experience is thematized. Hermeneutics, phenomenology, existentialism—these are approaches that recognize a qualitative richness to experience, and offer ways to interpret that experience. In many ways, we could introduce, like analytics, a strong sense of experience. Let’s call this thesis the Strong-Commitment-to-Experience. Skepticism about these trajectories comes from Derrida and his descendants. We could call this the Weak-Commitment-to-Experience. In many ways, what separates the two is that Derrida and his descendants do not think that the subject and/or the center of experience can be thematized in any reliable sense. There is no metaphysics of experience possible at all. A metaphysics of experience is not the same sense of metaphysics repudiated in Heidegger’s Being and Time since I would read Heidegger as offering us a way to make sense of experience, even if it just is one among many possible ontological interpretations of Dasein’s facticity. Contrary to the French post-structuralists, there is no structure or intelligibility to experience beyond the assertion of an interpretation, and no matter how heretical a phenomenologist is to Husserl, phenomenology is always committed to the fact that the world discloses its pre-intelligible meaningfulness to an experiencer.

If analytic philosophy seeks to always push its possibility into the future under the promise of science as the ultimate deliverer on all ambiguities and felt difficulties, then there can be absolutely no compromise with a vision without experience. This is an age-old problem, and most commonly distorted from the idea that a part of experience must be reduced or explained away by science as the final arbiter. Such tension can be felt in older moments of analytic philosophy and its own self-reflection. Dennett’s intentional stance comes to mind very easily on that score.

I firmly am convinced that enthusiasm for science is not the final answer on such questions, and I would not attempt to labor the pursuit of such a question beyond the brilliance of Husserl’s engagement with the natural attitude. Try as I might, I don’t think I could do it justice. What I can say is further assert why I am more open to Continental philosophy based upon the benefits one receives by paying attention to experience itself and how the interests in value theory in both analytic and Continental philosophy emerged.

First, a continental philosopher often pays attention to the cultural horizon, seeing problems of interpretation of experience as caused by the milieu that gives rise to the problem itself. This means that experience might pay attention to any number of elements drawn from the lifeworld in question. As such, continental philosophers pull from art, history, politics, and literature. In many ways, this chief boon is particularly responsible for how influential Continental thinkers have been to many within the humanities. We can all recall discussions with colleagues who are taking a horribly watered-down literary theory seminar in English or Cultural Studies and not reading Derrida through his critique of Husserl. Like reading Foucault and talking of “geneaology” without reference to Nietzsche

Second, this attention to experience also means that Continental philosophers engage in the production of art and often have a more acute connection to culture. Sartre wrote plays and novels, and Heidegger wrote bad poetry. Sartre also critiqued art. I, too, write bad poetry and short stories on occasion, but that’s a post for another day. However, this connection does bespeak even to my own life. I’ve also talked to 90.3 in Cleveland about critiquing art exhibits around the city. That proposal is still ongoing, and yet to be decided (more than likely a flight of fancy).

Third, an openness to experience means that people on the street can see the relevance philosophy has to their lives. If philosophers openly talk about the cultural problems associated with living in a capitalist society and one talks to a dock worker, the problems are addressed in a more satisfying way than as if their relevance is feigned from on high. A chair of a very analytic department once told a colleague of mine that the problems of philosophy are whatever the writers of the top analytic journals say they are. Such insanity can only be made by the raw efforts of assertion. Even analytics, famous ones like Harry Frankfurt, are responding currently to the malaise of relevance. In his Portrait of American Philosophy, he says:

I believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our  subject is currently in the doldrums.  Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field.  There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivsts.  In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke.  In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead.  Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines–and not only in Europe, but here as well.  And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.

The lively impact of these impressive figures has faded.  We are no longer busily preoccupied with responding to them.  Except for a few contributors of somewhat less general scope, such as Habermas, no one has replaced the imposingly great figures of the recent past in providing  us with contagiously inspiring direction.  Nowadays, there are really no conspicuously fresh, bold, and intellectually exciting new challenges or innovations.  For the most part, the field is quiet.  We seem, more or less, to be marking time.  (pp. 125-126)

Now, it’s Thursday. I have to prepare a lecture on Buddhism and cannot give any more voice to this question. However, I invite you to highlight the boon from your particular engagement with Continental philosophy. Since so many places have disparagingly shared their hatred for Continental philosophy, I won’t share such comments. Instead, I will only share thoughtful meditations (which can be equally critical of it) about its possibility. Is Frankfurt right to include Continental philosophy above? Is Continental philosophy in the doldrums as analytic philosophy is? It would seem that, for me, Continental philosophy is never in the doldrums in the same way exactly. Continental philosophy is in the doldrums because its very good fortune about responding to interpreting cultural horizons also means that it has become an activity of commenting upon comments about someone else’s comments about Heidegger. It has become textual exegesis without application.

The irony is striking to me. After completing and posting this blog post online, I could have just as easily directed my friend to the same answer I gave to C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures. 


House of Cards: Season 3 Review (Spoiler Alert)

As many of you may know, I am editor of House of Cards and Philosophy, and I have been watching it intensely for the last three years. I must say I am rather ambivalent about the third season. At first, the season starts with tiny threads starting to unravel. I was convinced that this season might be when all the cards start falling down, what we might call the Empire Strikes Back in which there would be some major defeats to the egoist surging power of Frank’s ascendancy to the White House and the other main characters. Instead, the show’s third season reveals a series of stop-and-gos, of near defeats and evasions in the exchange of power that resembles a dogfight from Top Gun rather than a decisive narrative arch. The ending of the season is not even abrupt as the first two and even less surprising. In that way, I found it to be a let down. 

We start six months into Frank’s administration. Heather Dunbar seems poised as a virtuous person, a force of moral rectitude that could stand against Frank’s tyranny, and in overly-simplistic fashion could be the Light to Franks’s Vader-esqueness. She is used by the show’s writers to highlight the obvious nature of Frank’s tyranny. That’s something we already know. Yet, she falls from the moral high ground. Philosophically, her failure implies that one cannot be Kantian in politics (as I suspect all good lawyers are good Kantians in real life). Secondly, her failure amounts to one strategy that makes her become almost what she hates, and you get the sense that the only way to make sense of Underwood’s nomination for the Democratic ticket is that the voters pick up on the reality of politics. House of Cards still depicts the ever-present need to transform oneself before the machinatoins of power in DC rather than trying to transform DC. There is a high level of cynicism that is maintained throughtout this season. In that way, nothing has changed, and Heather Dunbar falls from grace. It just takes more desperation as she comes closer to getting the nomination to resort to Frank-like tactics.  

Doug falls. He is recovering from injuries as Rachel left him at the end of season 2, and he almost becomes respectable. His growth teeters between reconciling with a long lost brother and then after recovering from a lapse of his alcoholism, he is sucked back into the maw of power. The first few episodes are shot in dark, as if the entire cast of main characters is lurking in shadow. This dark lighting strategy is used especially in scenes where we see Doug on the outside of Frank’s inner circle in the beginning of the season. He is weak in body, and cannot stand being apart from Frank. He even falls literally in the dark, a shower breaking his arm and before the meeting with Frank, he duct tapes the injury forging a cast with kitchen utensils. That’s just what being tough means. 

The not-so-real-shocker is the trajectory of Claire and Frank. Claire wants power and Frank resists but gives in to her demand to be the US Ambassador to the United Nations. When her appointment is denied by Congress, Frank reluctantly gives in and makes a recess appointment to the United Nations anyway. They come to loggerheads over some issues until Claire finally delivers an overturning of Russia’s veto of a peackeeping plan on the UNSC. In between these episodes, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks are sand-painting a mandala, a Buddhist picture of colorful sand meticulously crafted. The mandala symbolizes the impermanence of all things attesting to the Buddhist truth that there is no self-subsisting identity of any one entity in the universe. Instead, we stand in constant relation to a dynamic overwhelming flux and only the arrogant see themselves apart and permanent outside this flux. In the same episode, both Claire and Frank renew their vows of marriage, the political process is taking a toll on their marriage since for political reasons, Frank will remove Claire from the post of UN Ambassador in order to get the Russians from withdrawing their troops. 

When I first saw the mandala, that’s when I had anticipated the unraveling of the entire series. However, the unraveling was the slow and wobbly nature of their marriage. Frank and Claire seemed indomitable, but now Lady Macbeth (if that was even appropriate analogy to begin with) is in the 21st century. She wants to be an equal, and yet she is betrayed by Frank, always expected to be at his beck and call, and she wants equality of station. She resists him. In the very last episode, she does not go to Iowa Caucus. Frank is furious. He holds her chin like a mother scolding a child. She looks at him. She doesn’t flinch. She knows the Frank she married, and she looks at him ambivalently. You cannot tell if it is horror, shock or stoicism—maybe it’s a little bit of everything. She 

Added to this season is the character Tom Yates, a writer of somewhat ambiguous background. He is tapped as a talented writer since Frank loved reading his review of video games. He wrote a famous book some years ago, and now he is summoned to the Oval Office to write about Frank’s background and why the domestic jobs program called America Works should be praised. Frank wants the idea, the philosophy of the program, to be described, but the writer resists. He accompanies Frank almost everywhere and is the envy of the White House press corp. Pretty soon, Tom’s voice almost replaces the need for Frank’s asides. Tom becomes a conscience for the audience, and reveals a deep penetrating look not at America Works, or Frank’s life, but the equality behind Frank and Claire. In the end, he is fired for giving an honest telling of the distance and aspiration of both Claire and Frank. The only thing he misses is the deeply truly sinister energy, the real tyrant, still left to our knowledge, but the introduction of Tom does reduce the amount of significant asides Frank gives to us. Frank’s asides let us in to his sinister plans as he went from Majority Whip, to Vice President, and finally now to the Presidency. Now Frank has nowhere to go, and perhaps nothing or little left to say to us? What’s higher or more prestigious to the Presidency: nothing as far as our imaginations can stretch, unless of course, Frank makes a bid to transform the character and heart of American democracy into a dictatorship. That’s a show we could accept Frank in, and we’d secretly root for him to ruin but probably not the political imaginary we have at the heart of popular culture. The only way such a set-up would even be acceptable in a future season would be to see Frank nearly succeed, but only cut short at the last minute as an agent of virtue stopped him (even up to assassinating him) from transforming the heart of the republic into the projection of fear and domination Frank ultimately desires. As predictions go, I feel as though I do not know who could actually be the agent of that change. 

The only virtuous people throughout the entire series are the victims of Frank and Doug. Freddie is back. He got hired through the America Works program, and Frank gets him a job on the grounds when the program fails to be funded through Congress. He has his grandson named Deshawn with him, and Frank jokes with the young boy that he, too, could be President of the United States. When Freddie walks out with his grandson, DeShawn excitedly reports back that Frank said, “I could be President someday.” Freddie stops in the middle of the hallway. He looks down at him and said that Frank lied to him. Freddie is now well aware of what happens when you try to befriend Frank, and he wants his grandson to never be part of that world, the world that we also see Remy Denton suddenly quitting. Remy wants to be outside politics, and whether or not the lure is big enough to pull him back in is one we’ll have to see, but certainly Remy isn’t the one of virtue I wanted to talk about, though I mention him since his withdrawal from politics is very much like the virtue of Rachel. Instead, the second victim is Rachel Posner. She had to withdraw from DC to be redeemable. 

In the last episode, we see Rachel hiding in the Southwest. She is working jobs alongside illegal aliens in the hidden economy of the Southwest. She is hiding. She has saved up enough money to secure phony IDs, and she will be reborn as Cassie Lockhart. Then, we see Doug watching her, and he is quiet. He meticulously buys an unmarked van, shovel, and other implements of a murder we already know is coming. He looks like every horror-movie-psycho-truck-driver. His huge forehead and unnerving emotion of being dedicated to the task is a brilliant performance by Michael Kelly. Rachel’s murder is the price of admission to return as the Chief of Staff vacated by Remy. She is the one link, the final string that could end Frank and link him to Peter Russo’s murder. However, if we had any doubts that Doug could be redeemed it was in the scene with Rachel talking to him from the back of the van. She pleads for her life, and Doug initially let’s her go and the scene backs away to watch the van driving down the road. Then, we see Rachel walking, and the van barrelling towards her. The scene flashes to dirt covering her grave. He is now gone the way of Frank. 

Leonard Nimoy

I have spent my life with my head in the clouds.

The clouds are thick. Beyond the dust and water vapor, my clouds are filled with faster-than-light drives, space opera, energy-based weapons, and these things are easily juxtaposed to the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre that fills the other clouds with wizards, magic, and Ged traveling Earthsea. I have always dreamed of the future, better technologies, and even to this day, I often fall asleep to Picard or Kirk in the background, especially since Netflix has carried them for the last several years. 

 In a way, Star Trek was filled with philosophy, even before I knew I would dedicate my life in pursuit of it. Spok epitomized the rational and logical part of the soul praised by Plato. When Data created his daughter, he told her the last stage of sentience was the ability to reflect on epistemology and aesthetics. When Picard asks Wesley if he read that book he gave him, Wesley says he hasn’t had time to read “William James.” In the first few episodes of season 1, Kirk’s friend is evolving past the limit of human knowledge and that friend calls Spinoza simple while hinting that Kirk used to teach such difficult books at the academy. I can only surmise that philosophy was part of that hinted instruction.

 One can also see where they are in relation to Star Trek. As I have become a philosopher, and in particular since I have bought into a more primordially emotional existence in James, Heidegger, and Scheler, my philosophy has inverted the priority given to logic by Spok. Like Scheler, I agree with Pascal to privilege and elevate the “logic of the heart.” Now, I side with Spok’s brother, Sybok, in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. However, there was a time where I was more analytic, had an appreciation for science much more than theology, and it’s plain as day that Leonard Nimoy had a hand in my development as a philosopher. 

 Science fiction makes us dream. We envision different worlds, different ways societies can be organized, what new technologies will do to the older traditions, and how to conceive a unity beyond the tribalism of our own limited humanity. In philosophy, we often use our imagination to test philosophical concepts. We imagine ridiculous scenarios to see if a premise or concept can hold water as universally as we speculate it can. Science fiction and philosophy are my two separate guilty pleasures in this world, and they both draw on the imagination.

Leonard, I will miss you. I never knew you. I have imagined different worlds because of you. At the end of Star Trek III: The Search for Spok, Spok was joined with his regenerated body and katra. As you had a hand in directed that movie, I often wonder that if there is truly an afterlife where I can meet you and sit and have coffee with you. If such a place exists, then the words at the end of that movie orignally meant to herald the hint of Star Trek IV become even more significant: And the Adventure Continues… I hope it does for you. If not, then I can only think those words were meant for us. We can continually be inspired by your life. It was fantastic seeing you perform, introducing me to the “spirit” of logic, and I am glad that I had the chance to know of you.

Oh yeah, you’re not a bad director either. Three Men and a Baby was a funny movie, too. Peace. 

Erasure and Objects

Lately, I have been wondering status of objects.

Levi Bryant over at Larval Subjects posited that correlationism implies the erasure of objects, and in Graham Harman’s Tool Being, the time for relational ontologies is now past.

The issue is not some hackneyed attempt to champion the sciences and objectivity over meaning, but to draw attention to the material dimensions of how we dwell and live. Today, more than ever, we need to reflect on whether the tools of deconstruction, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, Marxist critical theory, and semiotics are adequate to thinking the world we dwell in and how these theoretical orientations might erase the fundamental materiality of existence. This erasure is so thorough that it’s difficult to even discern when working within these theoretical frames for, after all, one can only see what one can see, and being is here reduced to meaning. This critical reflection is not undertaken to erase these methodologies– quite the contrary –but to mark their limits, note their blindspots, and develop a theoretical frame capable of both preserving what is vital in these forms of thought and of moving beyond those limitations. This is what is at stake in the critique of correlationism. Materiality is not phenomenality, a lived experience, a meaning, nor a text– though it can affect all of these things –but something with its own dynamics and forms of power. We need a form of theory capable of thinking that and that avoids the urge to treat everything as texts, meanings, and correlates of intentions

For those not in the know, correlationism is a loose term to encompass all philosophies in the Post-Kantian European tradition in which the reality of an object correlates to consciousness, and this relation reduces meaning of an object to meaning-for-us. This is especially true for phenomenology. Now, phenomenology was meant to overcome an excess of materiality in which the natural attitude was thought to be all encompassing. The subject got lost when the constitutive function of intentionality was forgotten and the natural attitude of what motivates, I think, Bryant’s emphasis on materiality, sought to reduce all things to the third-personal natural attitude of science itself.

Could it be that the inverted excessiveness of materiality got lost with the exhaustive skepticism of phenomenology? Could it be that phenomenology concealed the object as Harman is indicating in Tool Being and does that really speak to complete erasure? Does that erasure, even if true, mean that we then swing the pendulum of our philosophical concern to again the same excessiveness of the natural attitude that calls for materiality?

Initially, the above post of Bryant linked an article by Clive Hamilton on how some philosophies promoted an ontological separation between human beings and nature. This ontological separation is damaging when it comes to linking the responsibility human beings have in reshaping the planet completely. Moreover, the dangers of these metaphysical distinctions promote culturally, as in climate change, pose a significant danger. No pragmatist can argue with that.

The Murder of Tamir Rice and the Subjectivity of His Murderers

I tried to publish a shorter version of this essay closer to the actual murder of Tamir Rice. I e-mailed both the Akron Beacon Journal and The Plain Dealer. The Northeast Ohio Media Group is the corporation that owns both major newspapers in Cleveland and Akron, and they didn’t even want to have anything to do with it. With such media ownership, actual discourse is shutdown, silenced, and the uncomfortable doens’t need addressed. I even thought I had found a sympathetic ear with the Call and Post, Ohio’s only Black newspaper, but that led nowhere as well. In the essay below, the point I make over and over again is how the force for violence is lashing out of whiteness against a world of difference. We must understand more than ever how such subjectivity is formed and takes root in the policing culture of Northeast Ohio. We need to be aware of why those in power fail to see Tamir Rice’s death as a murder. This failure is the philosophical task before us, and it’s more important than ever given that all eyes, including the Department of Justice own report on the incident, are on Cleveland. Here’s what I wrote below

The Murder of Tamir Rice and the Subjectivity of His Murderers

In April 2014, Lorain County, just outside of Cleveland, received armored trucks.The Lorain County sheriff and the Lorain Police Department this week each received a MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle. These armored trucks could protect from roadside bombs, and yet here in Ohio, pictures of White officers securely in their seat and can look out over the average streets of Elyria and feel safe, secure, and confident in their ability to project order. The local news pictured the officers smiling as they sat in the seat looking out of the steel contraption, yet there is a problem. We’ve had to invent a word for it: overmilitarization, and it comes at a price. The over-militarization of police departments enhances the subjectivity that lashes out against difference with force. The subjectivity created, sought after, and reinforced in Northeast Ohio’s police forces takes pleasure in the force it projects and is blind to itself in the question of whether such force is ever truly legitimate.

But make no mistake, the subject lashing out in force was already there, and it’s so common that many – in the media and the community of Cleveland at large – are justifying this prevailing subjectivity as the status quo. White men call into John Denning’s show on WNIR out of Kent, and constantly proclaim how there should be no minorities. We should all be treated the same and ignore the complaint of minorities. Only the delusion of Denning’s audience and even his oversimplified conservative narrative being entirely white and having never known and substantial hardship could make such an innocuous and stupid claim. Neither he nor his audience is alone. In our political climate, sadly, the sides are being drawn along partisan lines. The conservative reaction to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Tamir Rice in Cleveland here is that questioning the institution and its use of violence is justifiable in the service of justifying this social order. Violence is seen as the only measurable response against a world that does not listen to the subject’s desire to assert such authority. Such a desire to assert mastery and authority is at the core of whiteness and police forces that are mostly White. If only Eric Garner in New York City or Michael Brown had just listened, then they’d still be alive according to countless conservatives on talk radio, Fox News, and the ever so definitive former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani.

On the Left, the difference of others inundates the sense of normalcy such police subjects desire in the world, and so now protests are springing up everywhere disrupting everybody’s life. Such public disruptions are a call to attention of how these disruptions feel systemically in all Black Souls. To put that in simpler terms, police white males desire order and security and project those expectations onto the individuals they confront, and the police violence is the symptom of a decisively insipid racism we can no longer confront intellectually. The disruptions alert us to that fact, and they should continue since a call for justice is necessary to reevaluate where the United States is going. The demonstrations should pour over and disrupt the very heart of Playhouse Square and continue until Cleveland itself can cope with a longstanding problem of police violence. They should never end.

Underlying those projections, the desire for mastery and authority justifies violence already before its occurrence. Anytime the police feel the pangs of difference and disorder from the projected whiteness, violence can be justified in terms of how these desires arrange what they desire in the system itself. Violence becomes a way of remastering what is always other and in violence, one unmakes what is other into whiteness by murder or reducing otherness to what can be controlled. If violence unmakes the other, the victim of violence is erased through police murder. If the victim of violence is alive, then the victim is reduced to a body, a thing that can be played and toyed with by the authority that wants to transform the world into whiteness, and in unmaking others into bodies is as long of an American tradition as slavery itself. The taskmaster’s whip turns the victim into a body, and whenever the slave would discover in themselves the desire for freedom in disobedience, the lash was broke over their back to remind them they are just a laboring body. In policing, the subject regards all difference as a body to be subjugated by either respecting authority or, again, asserting that dominion over the victim’s body through the threat of violence and its application.

The problem with violence ultimately is that it unmakes the other and must be renewed to unmake the other into the very desire every time. Such unmaking requires tremendous energy, and police forces recruit subjects that share in the same desire for security and order. These desires cannot be unmasked for what they are since that would undermine the public trust we, the citizens of Northeast Ohio, place in the police. Institutional racism fuels these desires until the point they become normalized and cannot be seen for what they are and the values they promote. These values reflect how the desires are given space in these institutions, and symptomatic of these desires come out in violence. Eventually, unmaking the other will come at the moral cost such violence creates, and now the moral cost of our community is the murder of Tamir Rice. Tamir Rice

Tamir Rice was 12, twirling around a toy gun, an airsoft pistol. Yet, make no mistake. Officer Timothy Loehmann was already incompetent, lacking the skills to be a police officer to follow instructions or properly handle his weapon according to his former employment in Independence, Ohio. Officer Frank Garmback, the driver, had already settled an excessive force charge of $100,000 earlier in 2014. As the video clearly shows, Loehmann shot the kid in seconds. They did not approach the scene reasonably, tell the kid they knew he had what looks like a weapon, or take proper cover. In the end, they pulled next to the kid and shot him. They executed what they thought was a threat, but the very incompetency and institutional backdrop that informs their very subjectivity means the officers are a product of a system that cannot recognize its own responsiblity in Rice’s death. They murdered him. They shot a boy with an airsoft gun alone and playing at a park, and it is no surprise that they – being institution of the police or those that espouse blind faith in the police – cannot fathom how it is murder.

What fixes nature?

Part of the obscurity of value ontology lies in the fact that it is not clear what fixes the truth of moral claims. Values are unlike other material things. They compel us even maybe while we might desire otherwise. Or maybe not. I’ve been swimming in this problem for quite some time.

But today, I do not want to discuss values. I want to push a little further and ask what fixes experience of objects. Let’s call the set of all objects, nature. According to James, we should remain humble before experience in general, even objects. Now, clearly James thinks that purpose can impose upon texture and meaning onto experience, and this imposition of purpose can alter the meaning of objects. Various conceivable effects of the object can be experienced. I may experience the buffalo as a biological animal, provider of sustenance, as manifestation of natural spirit, or as both a provider of nourishment and a provider of sinew for bowstring. In this way, radical empiricism, like phenomenology, talks about how experience itself is connected to every transition of how the buffalo can or will appear as having “meaning for us”. As James puts it, if we experience the object as efficaciously real, then it is real as such.

Added to the above is that no one single person’s experience (or interpretation of it) can determine how objects and their conceivable effect will be for everyone else. For James, pluralism implies the widest possible big tent interpretation of experience, requiring what we might call a radical democratic and epistemic openness. Instead, we should be humble about the range of possible experiences and be open that our experience of objects can never be of the whole. Our experience or a claims are made of objects, but not the whole. Reality is felt, perceived, judged, and explored in snippets.

Given these conditions, James is skeptical about knowing what fixes nature, and the fixivity in nature is a key assumption many help themselves to. It gets people the metaphysics of independence. As Hume implied, continuity implies independence. If an object can be experienced in its materiality by all of us over time, then we can posit a realist property possessed by the object. The stark realization is that the independence and materiality of objects is an assumption, one among many, and to be fair, an assumption that while taken on pragmatic grounds, cannot for the Jamesian be proven absolutely. In fact, by my own Jamesian commitments, I cannot absolutize any metaphysical commitment about objects (this is the reason that James is the least dogmatic of all the pragmatists and the one that gave the richest interpretation of religion in human experience). I do not even know if there is  some structure that fixes nature. I can only tell you what the science we have at the time tells us what we might think fixes nature and that it really helps scientific inquiry to think such structures persist through time. As such one version of speculative realism may be right, or again none of them, but I am hardly in a position to know. The Buddhist may be right about interdependent co-arising about objects. Then again, maybe not.

The only thing I have access to is the relational aspect of experience and the purpose I am directed towards by my own choosing and I can assess the purpose of others and their beliefs. Within experience, I have the freedom to experiment and explore, but as Dewey firmly showed better than James, such exploration and freedom can impact others in our community.

The Un-Veracity of Verizon’s Virtue

I went into the Verizon store in Ashland, Ohio. To make a long story short, I was quoted a price of what my monthly bill was. The sales person wrote it down, and I made sure that this person promise me the estimates. He swore by them. I shouldn’t be so naive, but in the country outside the city between Columbus and Akron things are little bit different in tempo. Or at the very least, I thought they were. My bill is now $30 more than what that sales person told me in a two year contract, and it is beyond the contract time that customer service people can do anything regular about it (but that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to do something, even if their solution is not even close to the money I am losing every month when I pay their bill).

I extended trust to this employee. They offered me free technology, and I thought these devices were free. He repeated They are only free since I didn’t have to pay for them. In essence, the modem and the tablet have access fees that jacks your bill up $30. I was not told this when the sales person promised me the moon. I can just see this as a perfect example in keeping with teaching units on virtue ethics and Kant’s treating people as ends themselves.

Commerce requires trust. That trust must be assumed as a virtue to which all commercial actions conform. Trust facilitates that the goods or services one is purchasing will be delivered as promised. In earlier days, customers would walk into a physical space and all pay the same price. Now, there are a host of incentivizing structures that reinforce less than virtuous business practices and this also means there are host of incentives  for us to buy that service. My best guess is that the sales person will make a return on investment from deceiving me since Verizon Sales Persons make commission. Even if it is permissible to deceive a customer that doesn’t mean it is virtuous to do so. There’s no integrity then. The lack of virtue in my experience means that I am skeptical that Verizon ever can be virtuous again, and in the end, the possiblity of virtue is more important than the permissibility of the dearth of virtue.

At minimum, I should be allowed to return the devices, receive an apology from the store, and receive a $720 while still keeping my two-year contract. That would induce trust and rectify the lack of virtue Verizon has shown my wife and me.

So now, I am in contention with Verizon. I will tell 90 students today about my experience here at the University of Akron as well as my students at Kent State University and John Carroll University. At the very least, I can warn them about that store here in Ohio and to tread cautiously about dealing with Verizon in the future. It’s a shame really. I have been with them since I moved back to the United States from doing my MA in Canada and never had a problem throughout the entire Ph.D.

Frodeman and Briggle’s Socrates Untenured: Problems Going Forward?

I will not rehearse the argument. In fact, I’ve made the same argument in a different way here. If you read pragmatic philosophers, then you’ve heard the story ten times over. Following Dewey’s 1917 “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” Frodeman and Briggle (I will cite Frodeman after this exclusively as shorthand) insist that philosophers take stock of their own activities within disciplinary philosophy and generate discussion about how philosophy should be relevant to those concerns larger than some problems perpetuate within philosophy.

In the end, he posits two models. Model 1 is disciplinary philosophy, the type of philosophy that I write to other philosophers, and then they read and comment on it (if you’re lucky), and model 2 consists of philosophizing for all people, not just writing to reach other philosophers. The articles I have published and am publishing on Scheler are not for the larger world. They’re written for philosophers who have the same concerns. With outreach, philosophy can partly recover itself, show its relevance to a larger public, and a host of benefits will flow from model 2. We should practice both models, but open and expand them wider such that model 1 and 2 interact more.

What Frodeman forgets, or perhaps secretly hopes in the breast of his own heart, is that philosophical engagement with the larger culture must recognize philosophy first. Philosophy must already be valuable in order to reach a wider public. Now, this outreach is not a problem if we are doctorates already in love with philosophy, French, and a Germans from a century ago. Scheler’s Human Place in the Cosmos was a 3 hour lecture delivered in Darstadt, Germany. Can you imagine, sitting, and listening to Scheler for that length of time and wanting to? I cannot. It’s one of my favorite texts, but the readability of the text in either English or German is not that great. Aesthetically, it’s not Maya Angelou or Ursula K. Le Guin. Far from it.

Model 2 can only succeed in a world in which we philosophers fight tooth and nail to get recognition, but that recognition will always come at a price of a public disconnected from the cultural heritage philosophy transmits. We are severely at a loss to find philosophy relevant since the larger public doesn’t know what philosophy is. In many ways, this puts North American philosophers at a disadvantage to the point that we cannot just call for a new recovery of philosophy without first demanding philosophers attempt to teach others what philosophy is. Already, the most famous North American philosophers are ones that are first famous amongst philosophers, the academics, and then the larger world.

So what am I saying, if not just repeating what Frodeman already knows, but fails to say. His essay is written to philosophers. However, I am saying to other philosophers that we must come together anytime philosophy is threatened with retrenchment. Anytime philosophy is put under the knife we must all be there, yet that’s not enough. We must also be dedicated to getting philosophy in high schools—very much like France. We must be dedicated to getting philosophers out in public, writing letters to newspapers, composing videos on youtube, blogging, writing op-eds to newspapers, and finding venues other than academic ones to share our ideas with the public. In the end, there will always be philosophy of some type or another. Even in the post-apocalyptic world, people will still wonder (thaumazein), and as wonder is the basis for all philosophy, philosophical discussion will never go away. The point is to show how invaluable it is as a cultural good, and there’s clearly no correct way to do that. Ultimately, Frodeman’s suggestions will ring on deaf ears until philosophers figure out how to do this collectively.

Without knowing how, I do think that if we can educate the public about what philosophy is. If we following the pluralistic emphasis of William James, we may cast our net wide such that our own biases and policing of philosophy doesn’t infect the public imagination. For James, philosophy:

sees the familiar as it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar. It can take things up and lay them down again. its mind is full of air tat plays around with every subject. It rouses us from our native dogmatic slumber and brakes up our caked prejudices. Historically, it has always been a sort of fecundations of four different human interests, science, poetry, religion, and logic. It has sought by hard reasoning for results emotionally valuable. To have some contact with it, to catch its influence, is thus good for both literary and scientific students.

What Frodeman and Briggle have asked is how to transform people’s current attitudes that James spoke about in Some Problems in Philosophy with which the quote above appears.


In asking that people be so transformed, we want people to find the familiar strange. Finding the familiar strange means openly questioning what should not be questioned, and perhaps contemplating the strange and seeing how such an idea might become familiar is openly questioning in the opposite direction. For instance, some philosophy friends of mine have asked the question if uncritical and undue privileging of military service really is the best way we can be patriotic. Such undue praise may have consequences for our politics that remain unthought, and so the philosopher may ask questions she wants us to consider about the virtues that really should make up patriotism.

Philosophy pulls us out of the dark, and in so doing, I want to suggest one concrete suggestion about teaching. I tend to think that philosophy teaches the skills to which the Western university took its name “university.” The university makes the universe available, and in doing so, the universe is revealed through many different fragmented disciplines. The problem is that these disciplines are not talking to the other, and in previous centuries, e.g. the 13th century, there was overall conceptual agreement. Understanding wasn’t fragmented. What if in teaching the public the subject of philosophy, we ask those attending university to synthesize it for themselves or better yet, we find that philosophy departments engage in interdisciplinary teaching with the other departments on campus. Who else but the trained philosopher to use his/her imagination and bring the disparate results of those disciplines to train and hone the fragmented experience of students and bring those insights into dialogue with each other? As such, philosophical outreach can consist of active synthesis from the undergraduate’s point of view. Rather than thinking of teaching philosophy as fulfilling service teaching to the liberal arts requirements, philosophers can host senior level classes along central themes that bring together at least three disciplines (but why stop with just three?). These classes would be taught at the end, rather than “along the way” service requirements. Such a course can be co-taught with members of the other faculty, but the point is “to bring it all together.” As such, the purpose of the course is to find coherence amongst all the sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Explaining Postmodernism to Analytics Without Rorty, But Lyotard?

In this post, I have detailed some aspects of a chapter for my Scheler book, Being and Value in Scheler: A Phenomenological Defense of Participatory Realism. This section is the expository introduction (or as much time I have to devote to purely expository efforts since the book is pitched “across the Analytic and Continental Divide”). The question I will put to the larger blogosphere is simply: Do you think my exposition cuts ice? Does it work?

1.1 What is Postmodernism?

Magritte’s Treachery of Postmodernism

Some years ago, I attended a dinner party put on by an unnamed psychologist. She is in her years and has been teaching for more than two decades. She made a quip against what she called “postmodernism,” diagnosed it as part of larger divide between her scientific approach to truth and what she saw in the work her colleagues in the humanities. These quips are quite common: “postmodernism says that all truth is relative,” or that “truth is historical only.” If postmodernism amounts to a type of relativism or historicism, then how can it really help know and describe the world around us? At this time, I claimed the difference between phenomenology and postmodernism consisted in their treatment of truth. Needless to say, this claim was partly true, depending upon how one might conceive of both.

What I should have said is that there is nothing exactly like postmodernism simpliciter. The caricatures some maintain about their opponents are rarely ever accurate, and the caricature inspired by philosophers to those outside are extremely inaccurate. In this situation and numerous like it, postmodernism is a fancy term of art; mostly the term is used by those outside philosophy to generalize several French thinkers without coming to know their work in detail. Like William James’s idea of truth, however, postmodern thought is more than what its opponents report it to be. The deconstructionism of Derrida, the Foucault’s genealogy, and Lyotard’s death of metanarrative are all singular skeptical efforts. Better put, there are many postmodernisms, and these postmodernisms are skeptical about one or several aspects of philosophy’s pretension to think universally about what is really real. As such, Lyotard’s eventual “incredulity for metanarratives” cuts two ways. First, postmodernism is skeptical about knowing reality, but also having access to reality itself as an object for speculation. For Derrida, the target is metaphysical language; for Foucault, the target is subjectivity and power; and for Lyotard, the target is the cultural conditions of scientific inquiry itself, which by itself could absorb and subsume both Foucault and Derrida’s versions (and the reason why I pay a little attention to it here).

In each philosopher, the “postmodern project” shifts depending on the target of that discourse. To boil down these specific projects to the overall implication of what those discourses might say about truth is simply a distortion of their overwhelming complexity and beauty—even if we fundamentally disagree with them. In analytic philosophy, the parallel might be thinking that while cultural relativism in ethics leads to the classical difficulties we all teach but, surely, Gilbert Harman’s 1976 paper Moral Relativism Defended is a more refined and sophisticated piece than the relativism we teach in our introductory ethics classes. The same is true about any of the postmodern theorists.

Needless to say, one could ask am I guilty of the same distortions if I understand postmodernism as a form of anti-realism? Yet, I put to my readers that this is why I define the various postmodernisms as skeptical efforts about one or more aspects of philosophy’s pretension to think universally about what is really real. In Jean-François Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, a concentrated interrogation of Lyotard’s Preface can introduce elements common enough to the various other thinkers, enough to set the stage for engaging in a lengthy discussion of Caputo’s ethics soon to follow. First, I will make some distinctions to refine our understanding of postmodernism itself.

1.2 Distinguishing the Complexity of Postmodern Critiques

Postmodernism can be divided into two distinctions: postmodern epistemological anti-realism and postmodern metaphysical anti-realism. Postmodern epistemological anti-realism is the view that epistemic agents cannot claim to know anything outside their own lived-contexts, and as such, knowing what there is created and bound to those same lived-contexts. In postmodern metaphysical anti-realism, the metaphysical thesis is that the only things that exist are the projects and fabrics of lived-contexts. The fabric of reality is a woven construction of mind-dependent factors inhering in lived-contexts. For both Lyotard (and Caputo to follow), they are both postmodern epistemological anti-realists and postmodern metaphysical anti-realists.[1] From the fact that human beings are bound to metanarratives in terms of knowing also indicates that we have no access to reality itself apart from them in Lyotard.

In Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition, Lyotard develops a conception of postmodernism as a report on the status of knowledge in the post-industrial age from the 1950s even until today.[2] In this way, his work could be understood as either a particular discourse in either social epistemology or the philosophy of science, but more broadly, his work could capture the spirit under which the other French thinkers might embrace. Ultimately, however, Lyotard’s project amounts to a type of sociology of knowledge about science as it is practiced in today’s ethos. Specifically, science seeks truth within its own discourse, but the legitimation of science, its contents, theories and practices is what Lyotard defines as philosophy.[3] Furthermore, Lyotard defines the modern “any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative.”[4] For example, Kant’s first critique provides the possible conditions of possible knowledge such that it legitimates Newtonian mechanics. Put another way, Kant’s transcendental critique defends why we experience objects of experience that Newtonian mechanics studies. In another example, Descartes removes the uncertainty about God and souls from 17th century natural philosophy’s domain in the res extensa, securing certainty of their existence in a realm untouchable by physics in his res cogitans. The grand/meta narrative is that which grounds and motivates a particular discourse. The ground and motivation are often implicit in a discourse and only after some reflective distance has been gained from a particular discourse’s the implicit details do we even become aware of how those implicit details –the metanarrative – become operative. What is implicit is brought to the surface. Lyotard attributes several examples to this role historically: the dialects of spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working class, or the creation of wealth.[5] One could easily imagine Hegel, Gadamer, Kant, Marx, or Smith in those examples.`

By contrast to the modern, the postmodern is “an incredulity toward metanarratives.”[6] Each metanarrative is an apparatus of legitimation that justifies the sciences at that particular historical moment. The purpose of what Lyotard labels postmodern knowledge is in the cultivated “sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable.”[7] In this way, the postmodern condition explains the condition under which information is controlled since the practices of legitimation are interlinked with the normative problems of ethics and politics. For Lyotard, the interlinkage between science and values (ethics and politics) “stem from the same perspective, the same ‘choice’ if you will, the choice of the Occident.”[8] By that “choice,” The West (since Plato) has always linked the normativity of what is just with the expectations of what knowledge can serve. The metaphysical and epistemological projects are tied to the social dimensions of knowledge and power—“revealing that knowledge and power are two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is and who knows what needs to be decided?”[9] In addition, since both metaphysical and epistemological efforts can secure the social dimensions of knowledge and power, this inextricability of the social underlies both metaphysics and epistemology, and that provides evidence to the view established above, namely, that Lyotard is both a postmodern epistemological anti-realist and a postmodern metaphysical anti-realist.

Lyotard’s method for assessing the condition of postmodernism is Wittgenstein’s conception of a language game. For him, there are three features of language games and these features best elicit how the social dimensions of knowledge and power are at play in any particular discourse. First, the rules of language games are by no means insular; “they do not carry the within themselves their own legitimation.”[10] Second, “if there are no moral rules, then there is no game.”[11] In other words, even a slight modification of the tiniest rule changes the nature of the language game and if the participant makes a move not beholden to the current rules, then that participant is not playing that particular language game. Finally, “every utterance should be thought of as a ‘move’ in a language game.”[12] In other words, every utterance made in written and spoken form takes place within a specific language game, in a particular discourse interlinked to the dimensions of knowledge and power.

[1] I really have to thank J. Aaron Simmons of Furman University for a discussion on this point.

[2] Jean-François Lyotard’s, Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 3.

[3] Lyotard, Postmodernism, xxiii.

[4] Lyotard, Postmodernism, xxiii.

[5] Lyotard, Postmodernism, xxiii.

[6] Lyotard, Postmodernism, xxiv.

[7] Lyotard, Postmodernism xxv.

[8] Lyotard, Postmodernism, 8.

[9] Lyotard, Postmodernism, 9.

[10] Lyotard, Postmodernism, 10.

[11] Lyotard, Postmodernism, 10.

[12] Lyotard, Postmodernism, 10.

Transgressing Continental Limits

One of the reasons I find myself independent from many Continentals is the rejection of universal insight, or to put it in more starkly ambiguous terms “the universal” (or if we were to speak Hegelian for a moment, then the “absolute”), as if apprehending some universal ultimately threatens particularity and difference. This secret explains why I often call on the methods of analytic philosophy or what has been claimed with what I am doing with Scheler since my departure from SIU. To take values seriously, I am inclined like David Enoch to account for their substantive reality in my experience, but also beyond it. To move beyond, however, is to reconcile oneself to a type of thinking that engages the metaphysical. And while I am logically consistent with the person that has infected most if not inspired my recent thinking on a number of topics in philosophy, we should also note Scheler left phenomenology eventually for speculation beyond experience.

Most of the reactions against phenomenology have been twofold (and I will remind people that the following post cannot help but generalize a lot since we are dealing at the level of abstraction about methods). First, almost all of Continental philosophy has embraced and echoed Heidegger’s thinking about metaphysics. Metaphysics is regarded as a useless endeavor, it makes claims beyond the historical limitations of language and context about notions that developed in time and human history. As such, one cannot make metaphysical claims about reality at all, especially if those claims posit a distinction between appearance versus reality. These notions, concepts, or ideas cannot be extricated from these limiting conditions and as such, one cannot theorize as I do about “moral experience” and the relevant ontology of those concepts (such as value ) unlike analytic philosophy in which one can talk about the concept of agency, moral responsibility, and practical reason as such. The second thing is that phenomenology opened us up to the talk of subjectivity, and so its cursory talk opened us up to the fact that philosophy must not focus on anything beyond the co-relational structures of the conjoined act-object structure. Phenomenology established the limits of focusing on the here-and-now while at the same time becoming what it faulted in others, and the development of phenomenology sheds the overwhelmingly Husserlian baggage.

To advocate moral realism transgresses the limits of everything beyond Heidegger’s embrace and development of Continental philosophy and moves my thinking to the unrecognizable. My thinking is unrecognizable to the Continental because advocating moral realism cannot be reconciled within the framework of hermeneutic suspicions that nform Continental training. To claim that some values are objective invites criticism of the binary from deconstructionist colleagues. To claim that some values are objective invites criticism from postmodernists in that I am privileging and possibly constructing a foundation for moral subjectivity for all human beings. With that, some object to the insipid universal subjectivity at the heart of phenomenology itself. To claim that some value are objective invites the Levinasian suspicion that I am “duped by morality” as he warns in Totality and Infinity. To claim that some moral norms are universal for communities is hubris, possibly entrenching the wrong types of values that make us sick a la Nietzsche. To claim that some values are objective only reinforces the implicit conditions of my former bourgeoisie life (because as an adjunct I am not too sure how bourgeoisie I am despite the theoretical want of Marxists to lay that at my feet as an ethicist).  To speak of values as such is so…so analytic.

The unrecognizability is also due to the fact that we have inherited the biases of our teachers. What philosophy is and how it is shaped becomes habituated in our approaches from the training we receive and what they reinforce. I had a hard time convincing several of this project in graduate school, too. Many, if not all, have fought historically tooth-and-nail for Continental philosophy to be its own enterprise, and they were trained to think analytic philosophy wrong for abstracting concepts from history, language, and context. Not only that, but, the limits of philosophy also invoked the power relationships about how philosophy developed during the last fifty years.

I  find these realist intuitions in anyone that takes experience seriously rather than obsessing about limits to which most if not all Continental philosophy is slowly becoming. Continental philosophy is reacting to the the transgressions done to it in its name, and reiterates the dogma of the limit in so many ways. Think about the reaction to speculative realism. Some have drawn lines in the sand, and some have embraced Meillassoux’s want for ancestral statements. The embrace is a want for a speculation to make claims about that which is not mediated, that which is beyond. One can easily see why the religious or theological turn in phenomenology has occurred. People are tired of asserting the limit and understanding the implications of those limitations in philosophy at large. Asserting and defending the limits of philosophy has been the implicit agenda structuring all Continental thought since moving beyond phenomenology. My embrace of realist intuitions for irreducible elements of moral experience is perhaps more conventional than transgressing limits of mediation inspired by Heidegger, but because it concerns values (unlike ancestral statements about life on Mars where no human has been) the transgression is more noticeable.