The Rules and Norms of Public Philosophy

download-2The challenges of public philosophy are many:

1) It might not be viewed as serious philosophy to the point that one wastes energy on what will not reward the tenure-track bound or review of one’s research for promotion in any sense;

2) The chance for public ridicule increases with the increased attention to one’s writings and if you are employed in a place that doesn’t necessarily value the type of negative attention (nor the academic freedom for public philosophy), then one might not as well do it;

3) Public philosophy does seem rather one-sided (more liberal and left-leaning in keeping with the tilt of the academy), and could easily be reduced to the more destructive forces of the larger culture war where people on the internet are not interested in rational argumentation, but bent on destroying one another. Instead, it’s rather easy to remain innocuous and write on some problem in metaethics or engage in debates about the accuracy of William James’s writings. I easily recognize that some of my most passionate questions are at bottom pedantic (though I feel that they have pragmatic value in the end).

With these challenges, I would like to talk about the last one, the third challenge. Public philosophy will be taken up in the larger culture war, absorbed by its forces largely because all parties are interested in finding agreement with intellectual authority for their views. Catholic moralists and cultural Marxists can find any number of sympathizers and PhDs ready to rally to their respective causes, but when we play by the games of the internet, participants in those discourses are more interested in destroying people that disagree with them. Think on any number of recent disinvites from Conservative authors and media pundits brought to campuses to give a speech or a lecture. Our academic culture and more popular culture cannot bear to disagree. We are living in time where intellectual tribalism matters more than the substance of the ideas offered by those tribes. The art of both argument and disagreement are lost on us, and those of us who regularly teach critical thinking often think that the rules of good arguments should carry the day more than tribalism.

At Cleveland State University, student A asked me what book they should read to get a sense of what intellectual conservatives desired. I recommended Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind to student A. I also lamented that not too many intellectual conservatives were left around. Student B, however, refused to even contemplate Conservative ideas and scolded me for normalizing conservatism by even offering a recommendation to A. For B, all conservatives were fascists, which is a problem in itself. For this student, conservatism was like the bogeyman, so terrorized by personal forces in his own life, this student could not tease apart the vulgar expressions of conservatism from its more elevated philosophical form.75812

Before public philosophy can be done, all participants need to agree to basic ground rules. I can think of none better than the rules of logic, the principle of charity, what I call the principle of hermeneutic charity. Since the rules of logic and the principle of charity are well known for argument reconstruction, I’d like to focus on the last one by contrasting it with the principle of charity.

The principle of charity holds that we should criticize the best version of an opponent’s stance and think of the reasons they offer for that position as rational. However, if this is all one did, then the argumentative reconstructions will lose out on the relevant facts of history. The principle of charity extends only to your opponent’s argument, and not the historicity of the argument itself. This is the common complaint that disconnects arguments from the applied contexts from which they emerge. By contrast, the principle of hermeneutic charity holds that we should criticize the best interpretation of an opponent’s stance and be aware of the historical factors surrounding the reasons they offer for the position. Accordingly, the principle of hermeneutic charity does not construe advocacy of a position as being determined solely by historical forces. What it does advocate is that all philosophical positions are offered within the horizon of history, and that is an inescapable element of dialogue itself. We should never pretend that an argument is an ahistoric piece of reasoning that stands the test of time since such absolutism runs the danger of feeding more intellectual tribalism.

In criticizing the best interpretation of an opponent’s stance involves several tasks. First, we must read our opponent to the point that we are not lost on the historical factors informing our reconstruction of her arguments. Second, in noting these historical factors, we come to learn both the argument’s reconstruction and the position of the arguer are unfolding in history. When we can be both modest about the contexts of these arguments and allow for a space to engage in rational exchange of these ideas, the hope is that we can fend off the more vulgar and base instincts of ourselves.

Given that we can adopt these norms and provide public space for dialogue between various public interests, our toleration for disagreement must increase and our democratic commitment to pluralism must simultaneously increase—that is a problem for public philosophy. And also for philosophy more generally…

I will note some caution and reluctance. When I was younger, I read about the history of the Dominicans and the Franciscans in the 13th century in Richard Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children. From this study, I have always been aware of the dangerous arena of ideas. Ideas are/can be dangerous. They are parts of experience that can rattle others, and without norms and rules for reasoning, we’re lost already. Moreover, the norms and rules of logic, good reasoning, and the avoidance of fallacies must be actively renewed and sustained. Without renewal to each generation, the easier tendency to suppress dialogue and the exchange of ideas is all too easy a path to choose. For this reason, philosophy must be valued and enacted correctly for the larger public as a model of elevated discourse. The life of the mind must be praised and valued intrinsically for these reasons alone.


Thinking through Themes in Zen and Pragmatic Phenomenology

Phenomenology is a philosophy of the subject experiencing. In this way, the subject is always in relation. The primary mode of relating and experiencing is because of intentional consciousness, and phenomenological description attempts descriptions of intentional consciousness. Functionally defined, consciousness is a consciousness-of.

With such a heavy tilt towards consciousness, Husserl overlooked the body, and it’s easy for phenomenologists often to forget the body. Merleau-Ponty picked up on the occlusion of the body and the favoring of consciousness. In his phenomenological descriptions, he discloses the relation of the body as its own form of embodied intentionality. Bodily intentionality expresses the pre-noetic features of the body that go unnoticed if we were to strictly limit phenomenology to consciousness.

With so much focus on consciousness and the body, the world is presencing itself. I say presencing since there’s no real adequate term in our current Anglophone philosophy to express the excessive relationality of all particular beings and thing-events. A thing-event includes all particular objects and manifest events in which particular beings are in relation to each other. A thing-event is understood by phenomenologists as particular objects of consciousness, one-side of the intentional relationship that’s never understood adequately. In phenomenology, these objects of consciousness only have meaning-for-us since they are understood and described in relation to intentional consciousness.

Apart from consciousness relating to objects, there’s no conception of particular objects relating to other particular objects or thing-events, yet what if it was characteristic of thing-events to present and give themselves in constant flux and relation to other particular objects and thing-events? In that totality of thing-events, the person is one such dynamic reality unfolding in relationship. Other particular beings, then, should also be understood as a loose coming together of many thing-events. While in constant flux, relatively-stable configurations of thing-events become persons for a short-lived time, and even in these relatively-stable configurations, the subject experiencing in phenomenology is but one snapshot of the overall dynamism echoed in the very presencing world.

Scheler in agreement with Plato regarded the striving and becoming of beings to reaching higher values. For Scheler, love is this very becoming, and persons are that which realize the divine in action. We participate, then, in the unfolding love of the universe. In acting upon love, persons emanate the divine, and this panentheism in which love and the divine’s goals can only be achieved by human persons. Persons are collaborators and co-creators alongside God in Scheler, and it’s at this point, however, I wonder if Scheler truly remained a Christian-based thinker. In opting for a panentheistic conception, the distinction between creator and created collapses, and what remains in Scheler’s thought is a process-based metaphysics in which Christianity is a metaphor for the loving-directed becoming of the cosmos. In other words, Scheler might claim that the presencing of the world is a type of love that cuts down all the way.

Scheler, however, is still trapped in phenomenology. There are real essences that are discerned by phenomenology, and it seems like his early thought is not as much in process as his later metaphysics. By contrast, a Zen-influenced process view might not see the universe in the very rigidly-hierarchical-yet-partly-dynamic way Scheler came to view the universe. Becoming does not take place in a hierarchy. The rigidity falls away. In Zen, there are no hierarchies.

Hierarchies are a product of discriminating judgment, ego, and a reifying of the abstraction from which the hierarchy will be formed (e.g., the Platonized God of Augustine). This is not to say that there are not middle truths that A) admit all existents are in flux and b) within that flux for a short while there are relatively stable but still dynamic entities (e.g., persons). If anything pragmatic phenomenology only has access to these middle truths that work both within the stream of consciousness and the stream of the universe and deal within the fact that our concepts reflect the causes and conditions of dynamism and/or are also revisionary. Because our concepts can always be revised depending on how they enliven our ability to be, the concepts can never be reified, and a trajectory of synthesis is possible both within Zen and pragmatic phenomenology.

Since I have only begun to provide the contours of pragmatic phenomenology in my work, I have little to say how this future synthesis will work. For now, the question to be asked is: Should the five skhandas also include (or do include) Scheler’s affective intentionality and are the subsequent value-rankings and the love movement in reaching higher feeling acts somehow expressed in a Zen view? There are many possibilities here. We’ll have to see.

Refuting Newt Gingrich’s Hysteria Claims about Southern Confederate Monuments

downloadIn his own words after Charlottesville, Newt Gingrich believes that leftwing actors and the elite media support “eliminating large parts of American history.” He continues, “If a person defends a historic monument or statue, the Left and the elite media immediately claim it is a sign of racism, anti-Semitism, and any other harsh emotional condemnation.”

Let’s clarify. It’s not just about defending “a historic monument or statue.” We’re talking about a particular species of Southern monuments erected in the Southern United States post Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and onward that glorify a past in which African-Americans were not considered moral persons. The critique of these statues is very specific to these statues based on actual ethical reasons, “not emotional condemnation.” The feelings of condemnation come from ethical principles of universal dignity, not the other way around. It’s for this reason I’ve decided to respond to you, Mr. Gingrich. You’ve inadvertently made several philosophical arguments. Bad ones, I admit, but you made arguments nonetheless.

John Locke, with whom Thomas Jefferson (and conservatives and indeed many libertarians love) was inspired by to write the Declaration of Independence, wrote A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). In that piece, Locke argued for the conditions under which toleration should be enforced amongst Catholics and Protestants. The irony, of course, with respect to Locke (as much as Jefferson) is that John Locke wrote The Fundamental Constitution of the Carolinas in 1669 in which he advocated for slavery. One cannot deny that the seeds of white supremacy have been here from the beginning of the Republic—even in the very beginning of the philosophical idea of the United States. With that said, what relevance does Locke have for us today in his letter about toleration and what does that say about Southern Confederate monuments?

Toleration is morally valuable because it is enforced by agreed upon ethical principles. Toleration is itself morally valuable such that you must be intolerant of intolerance. It’s not revisionist history to try and be honest about the systematic oppression of various groups in the United States’ history (Native Americans, Catholics, women, and African-Americans and the LGBT community to name a few) and where this toleration has been lacking. This analysis is not hysteria, but philosophical and intellectual honesty about what we wish the United States means today for us and our children. I bring this up mainly because of the central problem in political philosophy. The central problem is trying to conceive how pluralistic democratic societies should be and what toleration conditions look like reflecting that very democratic pluralism.

When you equate the physical act of removing Southern monuments with eliminating history, it’s anything but that. In fact, that’s a typical strawman fallacy where you oversimplify and distort the actual point of your opponent such that you argue against your own oversimplification rather than be honest about what your opponent might be saying. What’s more, the fact that your opponents are all grouped into leftwing fanatics and elite media is even more suggestive that your argument is made with no nuance in mind. I would hope this engagement changes your mind.

In light of the strawman fallacy, you are guilty of ignoring some historical facts.

First, the majority of these Confederate monuments and statues were built post-Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) in Southern states. The bulk of them were not about mourning Southern sons, but are arriving on the scene 40, 50, or even 60 years after the ending of the Civil War and at the height of racial tensions. See the chart below from the SPLC:
Second, the timing of their construction endorses and memorializes a white supremacist future.

Third, when we talk about removing these statues, our civil society starts to reckon with its past. It’s a red herring to think simply statue removal amounts to “sanitizing your history to make you feel better.” It’s about encountering that very harsh and oppressive past for the hopes of making a better world for all of us. In other words, the claim of sanitation is a distraction rather than truly reckoning with that historical past.

Moreover, you have also engaged in a slippery slope argument. A slippery slope argument relies on projecting dangerous effects about accepting an idea rather than again being honest about what the idea is about. The idea is about removing Confederate monuments in Southern states, it’s never been about removing monuments to Jefferson or Washington. To push that agenda is to miss the point of the critique and in itself fosters the very hysteria you want to say the liberal media is causing when it’s really your inability to keep an honest focus about what some of us are saying about Confederate monument removal.

Next, I’ll just concede that you are accurately citing NPR, PBS, and the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion and that “62 percent of voters nationally think monuments of Confederate leaders should remain up as historical symbols, while only 28 percent” endorse their removal. An ad populum fallacy is when someone relies on the popular sentiment of a conclusion rather than offering supporting reasons of fact for why the conclusion is true. If all you have is how popular a conclusion is felt, then you have no premises to give us to make an actual argument for your case.

When you end on the fact that the Left is engaged in distractions, it is beside the point, which ironically is a distraction from the discourse about removing Southern Confederate monuments. You are trying to trivialize the very engagement with understanding history and the values of tolerance. Part of this is that by conserving many aspects of tradition, you become blind to how complicit conservatism often is with maintaining aspects of that past that contribute to white supremacy and racism.

In short, your arguments are guilty of ad populum, slippery slope, strawman, and red herring fallacies. In brief, your argument is very bad, intellectually dishonest and violates the standards of good reasoning.

Some Reflections on Sullivan on Dewey’s Solution to Racism


Shannon Sullivan is critical of Dewey’s solution to racism. She writes,

Dewey claims that antipathy toward the strange tends to fade away: “In the main this feeling left to itself tends to disappear under normal conditions. People get used to what what was strange and it is strange no longer.” According to Dewey, people become accustomed over to what they once found strange and cease to feel the anti-strange feeling without really trying to, as it were. Put in more technical terms, Dewey claims effectively is that after sedimented and change-fearing habits have been disrupted by something perceived as unusual, new patterns of impulses will come about that incorporate what was strange, eliminating its disturbing shock (Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of White Privilege, 2003, p. 40-41).

For Sullivan, Dewey has a naive and simplistic view of how unconscious habits work. Unconscious habits are a complex network of possible impulses, imagined possibilities, and irrationality. Accordingly, Dewey neglects the “complex operation of racism and white privilege” (Ibid, p. 41). In fact, we might say that the concept of privilege — let alone racism — would ever occur to Dewey. People’s habits are already underscored by racism and white privilege.

The foreign becomes familiar. Dewey thinks a la Sullivan that as whites become more familiar with that which is, at first, strange and foreign, racial prejudice will diminish. First, the mechanisms of habit are left wanting. Sullivan is trying to compensate for Dewey’s lack of sophistication in this regard (especially in what we might call the social and political ontologies at play), and she should be lauded for her efforts.

To say that habits are unconscious and not mention how psychic drives relate to habits leaves much unsaid about the structure of persons through which the analysis of racism and white privilege is largely being explained. Her exploration seems (and I say “seems” to leave open the possibility of being wrong) to ignore how drives affect habits. Habits are structures of embodiment and psychic forces–some conscious and unconscious. To her credit, she uses both the Deweyan term “qualitative” and the term “impulse,” but she only really focuses on habits as unconscious, but leaves open how impulses relate to and emerge as a force of life.  In the same work, Revealing Whiteness, she will take up the relationship between Du Bois and Freud, but leaves aside questions of philosophical anthropology in which not only habits but also drives, affective intentionality and corresponding values form a central feature of the human person and intersubjective constitution of society in general.

Phenomenologically, we might say that moving the analysis of habits pushes the analysis only to what Scheler called the vital level of human existence. For Sullivan ontology is restricted to socio-historic, embodied, and linguistic world; “ontology is not composed of eternal and unchanging characteristics, nor is it reducible to conscious experience. Ontology is constituted by the historical, contextual, simultaneously malleable and stable, and only occasionally felt features of situated, located beings” (32). Therefore, the ethical is left unexamined just as with the more psychic and affective forces that compose the human person and along Schelerian lines, it’s these affective forces that give rise to the ethical. According to Sullivan, affective forces, the felt reality, only matter “occasionally.”

For Scheler, however, the affective structure of the person is the reason why we value our existence as historically embodied beings. To see this as only mattering occasionally is to miss a huge chunk of those elements that constitute the valuing delusion of racism and white supremacy. This is the second feature missed when we ignore the affectivity behind the value structures of human persons. We lose out on our ability to rightly correct value-delusions, what Scheler will call an ethos, that wrongly invert lower values for higher values. The value-delusions, I would argue, are the very mechanisms that fix habits both consciously and unconsciously.

This is not to say, then, that we should see Scheler as more responsive to the concepts of racism and white privilege. I want to be clear that’s not what I am claiming. Instead, there are elements of his conception of affectivity and drives in his later metaphysics that can help flesh out the picture and mutually reinforcing mechanisms of racism and white supremacy. I am sympathetic to Sullivan’s work. Sullivan is, indeed, onto something. White privilege and ignorance work in certain ways operating a tergo in very implicit and explicit ways to ensure the status quo of white domination, yet it’s not clear to me that there are not *higher* organizing structures in the lifeworld sedimenting habits. Getting clear on how to undermine racism and white supremacy, we must understand how habits function and work. On this, I have no doubt. Moreover, as she shows, both Dewey and James regard habits as providing a stable but somewhat malleable intelligibility for society. However, I think there are some phenomenological concepts that can help tease out the difficulties of simply pressing and relying on Dewey’s concept of habits.

Argument from Pragmatic Metaphysical Restriction

Consider what I call the Argument from Pragmatic Metaphysical Restriction:

(1) If both Kantian critique of metaphysics and James’s limitation of metaphysics are true, then metaphysics can offer no proof for God’s existence and no arguments for God’s existence are at all possible.

(2) If metaphysics can offer no proof for God’s existence and no arguments for God’s existence are at all possible, then James’s Will to Believe argument offers the only plausible reason to explain why religious beliefs are rational, but not conclusive.

(3) If both the Kantian critique of metaphysics and James’s limitation of metaphysics are true and no arguments for God’s existence are at all possible, then James’s Will to Believe argument offers the only plausible reason to explain why religious beliefs are rational, but not conclusive.

You could posit the consequent of (2) with other fideistic options, but in the end that’s the only real plausible argument to make about God’s existence since metaphysics is very limited–if possible at all. If we opt for Kant, then there is no speculative metaphysics. However, a Jamesian might defend further speculation about beliefs from the initial leap of faith into both aspects of nature and the divine. In this argument, faith is its own form of justification given that there are no other types of justification for metaphysical beliefs (apart from their conceivable effect on our experience). This also embraces the fact that scientific beliefs rest on pragmatic assumptions but that those assumptions can never be taken to be metaphysically conclusive.

However, let’s think from the other side. This restriction would also hold in some interesting ways from the naturalistic side of things. A fideism about naturalism? I imagine that we might posit the regular likelihood of future congruent beliefs cohering about our interactions and beliefs we discover about the natural world. Let me explain since I think this holds for both sides of how religious and metaphysical beliefs might work given that neither religion nor metaphysics can be definitively proven.

Naturalism, like James’s WtB argument, makes it such that there are clear cases of belief (namely options and genuine options when put together) that do not map onto reality independently of how we experience it. One could call this the pragmatic restriction of belief formation since again, all beliefs are really dispositions to respond habitually because of how belief (B) coheres and facilitates the set of future experiences (F1- Fn). So there are two cases that cut along naturalism and religion:

1. Epistemic Agent E accepts naturalistic beliefs (B) such that habits form to anticipate and explain (F1-Fn)

In case of 1., E represents the world as if one can conceive of nature independently of one’s experience and that helps conceive of likely consequences of action. Moreover, these consequential benefits might not come back for some time because it might not be that clear how naturalistic beliefs foster future consequences to our practices. I would readily admit, however, that naturalistic beliefs probably return with greater occasion than speculation merely because scientific beliefs often engender technological innovation.

2. Epistemic Agent E accepts speculative metaphysics B such that habits form to anticipate and explain (F’ to F’n).

In the case of 2., E’s speculation may be either concrete or removed from afield than naturalistic beliefs though it’s very possible that the set of F’ to F’n and F1-Fn may concern the same objects of concrete experience. Speculation serves to connect disparate threads and gaps of our more mundane knowledge, and a great deal of speculation serves to connect various pieces of the natural world together with the unseen order. In the same way, someone might have faith in science, a type of scientism that combines naturalism and belief in science such that they act as if science is their religion.

Habits embody the practices of the relationality between beliefs and action. This is the heart of the proposal such that 2. means that we can accept arguments for God’s existence on pragmatic grounds, and what that might mean. However, these same arguments can only be regarded as 2, but never independent truths that map onto a world without practice.


Jamesian Pluralism and Some Good News

Pluralism lets things really exist in the each-form or distributively. Monism thinks that the all-form orcollective-unit form is the only form that is rational. The all-form allows of no taking up and dropping of connexions, for in the all the parts are essentially and eternally co-implicated. In the each-form, on the contrary, a thing may be connected by intermediary things, with a thing with which it has no immediate or essential connexion. It is thus at all times in many possible connexions which are not necessarily actualized at the moment. They depend on which actual path of intermediation it may functionally strike into: the word ‘or’ names a genuine reality. (A Pluralistic Universe, Lecture 1: Types of Philosophical Thinking)

William James uses the expression all-form. By this term, he describes those that believe they have access to the all-form, to an idea or series of ideas that can explain what is fundamentally real. Of course, James is skeptical. The universe is filled with many each-forms. The bits and pieces of experience do not always add up just as much as not every part can be made so simple into a unity with other things. Our experience is of snippets, pieces, and fragments that we are trying to assemble, and our efforts are revisable as we learn from time to time the parts and piece of the universe do not fit together so easily. Something is always missed as we incorporate new information, but make no mistake a great deal of our experience of ourselves in relation to the world is part construction of ourselves. In James’s words, experience is “additive” in this very way.

In addition, James is ontologically neutral about what the ontology of these various parts and contents of experience are. The room may be a perception of it as physical object, or the same room may manifest as thought-content. I believe it was Bertrand Russell that coined this as neutral monism. Either way, I have loved this term since I first heard it, but it also puts some ontological concerns out of play for the Jamesian. The materialist and the idealist are certainly not candidates for James in the strictest sense from my reading of A Pluralistic Universe. Instead, only a pluralism that combines the fact that experience consists of conjunctive and disjunctive relations can really do justice to James’s radical empiricism.

Beyond that, I have been thinking a long time that these theses of James’s radical empiricism and the general openness to what can be experienced embodies reasons for why persons should be tolerant of other people’s religious views. If this is how experience truly operates, then we have both a philosophical account for reasons why we should be tolerant of others.

Thinking this way has many consequences for other parts of life. Consider a narrative of a fictional Methodist minister driving around Cleveland. He walks down the street on Cleveland’s Eastside. He passes a woman who has just moved to the city. The anxious young woman is attending a sangha for the first time and her heart flutters at the anticipation of finding a group with similar if not identical synergy from her last sangha. She’s circling nervously outside the Zendo as he passes her. Later that day, the pastor passes a young man shopping with his mother who will have his barmitzvah in a week’s time. He’s excited at the prospect of being recognized before the Jewish community as a man while his mother talks to an African-American friend on the phone from work. The African-American woman on the phone runs a charity with her non-denominational church and wondered if the mother knew of similar charities her church could work with to donate school supplies to local elementary schools in Warrensville Heights. When the pastor gets into his car, he promised he’d run some flowers to an ex-parishioner who moved to the Westside of Cleveland, but to get there he must drive past the Mosque in Parma. As he’s driving, he stops to let several Muslims cross the street apparently late for some function. In one day in Cleveland, the Minister could come into contact with a variety of perspectives without ever really coming to know those parts that each try to decipher the all-form of reality, but to which are multiple expressions of it.

To this end, I am happy to announce that I will be blogging here more about my research for a monograph I am writing entitled, William James, Pluralism, and the Religious Multiverse. It’s due in December 2018. I will continue to put more of this together and in putting this together, some of the ideas and writing will appear here.

Feminist Philosopher Encouraging the Production of Memes?

Over at, Jenny Saul has encouraged the internet community to make a meme from this photo after seeing it at a Berlin museum.

In this photo, Jenny Saul says, “In the same exhibit I saw a much less famous picture.  I don’t know who this woman is.  But someone needs to make a meme.  Surely the expression on her face gives one plenty to work with.”

Personally, I tend to think that the work that blog does is superior than asking others to make a meme. With that said, acknowledging who this defiant woman is can be seen as rightly recognizing her along feminist lines.

I just found it odd, and even pedagogically at ends with what philosophy does, to recommend that someone “make a meme.” Memes are pictures with text that occur in social media. They are shared uncritically. They are liked, regurgitated, and cycle between likeminded people, and occasionally disagreeing parties encounter them in a newsfeed only to brush past them as quickly as they’ve been seen.

Every meme asserts the conclusion that likeminded people share already as a commitment. This is why they are sarcastic, snarky, and they pale in comparison to a good solid philosophical argument. They are never effective in changing someone’s mind.

Now, let’s assume a group of memes can uncritically endorse true moral propositions like the ones that find their way onto the Feminist Philosophers blog–just as much as they can be a source of hate-filled, bigoted, and sexist ones circulated at places like 4chan and Reddit. For this reason, Saul is offering prudent advice. It might be prudent for someone to produce memes to battle those images, yet as a philosopher, however, that still means we are dealing only in images. In a Platonic sense, the images are generated by the people who walk with the silhouettes of those images by torchlight, and if we participate in that type of discourse, we perpetuate the very images we oppose precisely because we do not get above and beyond them to true moral knowledge. Showing people what a good critique or argument about bad memes is more productive. There’s something more productive when we show why conclusions should be presented with supporting premises rather than just merely asserted. To call for memes to be produced is to lower the conversation in general philosophically–no matter how prudent it is.

If we can agree that one (certainly not the only one) goal of philosophical education is imparting self-reflective habits of intellectual autonomy to others, then encouraging someone to advance a conclusion without those habits goes against the goal of philosophy.

Brennan’s Error About Pluralism

KIEFER_1According to Jason Brennan, countless political theorists have formulated a problem/puzzle of pluralism, but these formulations are misguided. He understands the problem of pluralism to thus be,

Many political theorists believe that democratic theory faces a puzzle or paradox. Democracy is supposed to answer to the differing worldviews, opinions, perspectives, and considered judgments of its citizens. But, we’re told, the polity has intractable value and perspective pluralism—citizens have myriad incompatible comprehensive worldviews and value systems. So we face the Puzzle of Pluralism: How can we pass any laws or even offer judgments about what is just or unjust, without thereby disrespecting our fellow citizens and running roughshod over their different worldviews?

For Brennan, then worries “that Zerilli, Rawls, Habermas, Arendt, Okin, and the countless other political philosophers and theorists who write about this problem are dealing with a pseudo-problem.” His main contention is that empirical research on voting behavior indicates that the average voter has no unified comprehensive worldview. Instead, their political commitments are all over the place, and as such, there are no comprehensive worldviews held by people at all to which the problem of pluralism feels it must answer. Instead, the problem of pluralism is generated out of philosophical confusion about what is the case, and if we can show what is the case empirically, then we should abandon the pseudo-problem and move on.*

Brennan does concede that this is more than likely a problem for a small percentage of people—perhaps the very philosophically-inclined class of people that generated it. Some small percentage of the population may think that it’s their epistemic project to form comprehensive worldviews and consistent beliefs about what they ought to believe concerning voting issues, yet on a whole we can’t say that the majority of voting Americans are remotely like this enough to justify again the absurdity of the puzzle of pluralism.

In this short response, I’ll concede the truth that most Americans do not have anything resembling comprehensive beliefs about voting commitments. Indeed, I find it very plausible that many Americans are not self-reflective about what they ought to believe about many topics. In the absence of self-reflection of most people, does that mean that the problem of pluralism should be abandoned philosophically? I would argue no because the historical complexity of these thinkers means that the problem of pluralism is not just a philosophical problem as Brennan is responding to it (and expressive of a bad ahistoric mode of analytic philosophy itself), but the problem of pluralism expresses the existential realities of lived-experience these authors confronted. Let me explain with the example of Arendt.

Hannah Arendt’s commitment to pluralism comes at the crossroads of a life being Jewish, German, and escaping the Holocaust. In the shortest of terms, Arendt escaped a society that did not seek to tolerate difference at all. In her opening words of The Human Condition, she notes that not man as one encompassing species, but individual men live on the Earth. Through our action, we disclose who we are and that plurality is the condition of action. These words reveal an effort to try and figure out how it is that political action can tolerate difference in the very disclosure of the who each person is. For Arendt, the public realm is necessary for this existential disclosure of the who, and the more this space of appearances can tolerate variety, the better off we are. Arendt is, then, very concerned about any society that seeks to eradicate this public space that disclosure takes place. It’s a hallmark of totalitarian society to eradicate the public realm completely. The rise of mass culture, mass man, and a society of unreflective and banal people are threats to the stability of a healthy state of affairs that can tolerate the public realm.

Of course, this is a very rough sketch of Arendt, but I think if we pay attention to the context of Arendt’s thought rather than overgeneralizing the historical complexity as a pseudo-problem (and absurdly overgeneralizing the complexity of Habermas alongside Arendt), we can see why Arendt is thinking in pluralistic terms. On an existential level (and not solely epistemic terms), Arendt would agree that many—if not most—people have no comprehensive worldviews normally. The normal position is the banal person who after Milgram can sit in the same position of Adolf Eichmann reading train schedules and sending Jews to die in Office IVAB.

Now, what’s the point of this trajectory? How is this a response to Brennan? Well, think about it. What happens if we start to think about what Arendt is responding to? We start to see that, perhaps, there’s wisdom in framing the philosophical problem as she has. The upshot comes from thinking in terms of pluralism itself, in the very framing of it and refusing to let that insight go away. To put the same insight another way: Arendt reveals the dangers of unreflective people incapable of moral judgment in Adolf Eichmann: A Report on the Banality of Evil and one could connect that to the reasons she opens The Human Condition with the fact of pluralism is the very condition of men inhabiting the Earth. She already saw what happens when people choose to ignore the fact that people ought to start there and recognize pluralism at the outset, even if the large majority of people aren’t yet even capable of recognizing pluralism as such (which is perhaps a general way of summarizing the thematic whole of her Origins of Totalitarianism). That’s what Brennan’s very typical ahistoric analytic problem-solving method of identifying something called the puzzle of pluralism ignores when you oversimplify the historical realities of a group of philosophers.** For this reason, it’s a mistake to think that what Arendt is doing is in any way connected to a folk theory of democracy, but employing philosophy to respond to the circumstances she endured. The problem of pluralism is existential, hermeneutic, phenomenological, and pragmatic. It is not only about beliefs representing reality, and only when the problem of pluralism is distorted as solely only about beliefs representing reality does Brennan’s criticism make sense. Instead, beliefs are rules of action, and encompass a great deal more than how I think Brennan’s appeal to empirical research allows.

*There’s also the curious fact about uncritically assuming the metaphysical views of what the social science may be assuming about persons that becomes uncritically reproduced as a background assumption when making these comments. I’m just wondering if Brennan might think that the existential and phenomenological character of Arendt’s work, while not scientific, is seen as folk theory?

**Notice also the very curious dearth of textual citation of what pluralism amounts to any text of Habermas or Arendt for that matter. I find it curious that someone would try to make generalizations about various philosophers without at least trying to find textual support for those claims…even in the sporty arena of informal blog writing.

Blog Ending or Continuing??

As the name of the last episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation was titled “All Good Things Must Come to an End,” so too, this blog is ending.


I am moving to blog at Philosophical Percolations, a new blog being organized by Jon Cogburn and several of his LSU cohorts. I’ll post a link to it when the domain name is cleared, and it’s not ordained with test posts. I have a host of meditations I will be writing on personalism, teaching religion, and some other area interests hinted at over here. The blog will require a bit of more time, the type of time commitment larger than maintaining two blogs at once. Also, I cannot cross post anything, so I should devote my time and energy to it.

I am unsure whether or not I should end the blog. It has been my joy to share what thoughts exist in my brain after graduate school and the last two years joining the under-culture of adjunct philosophers circulating around Northeast Ohio. In many ways, I have enjoyed this blog; it has made it possible to feel a connection to other philosophers online that living out of my car teaching between Akron, Kent State, and John Carroll does not foster despite several of these places playing lip service to promoting ends of a just community. And while I will never gossip about the working conditions of these places, there is a dark side to adjunct work that makes me appreciate the better places of this world, and why I must continually attempt to find such a place. I am told they do exist.

This blog’s namesake owes itself to those two elements drawn from James and Husserl. Phenomenology and pragmatism are still strange-bedfellows in my mind as I have been actively reading James scholarship and William James over the past two years, and actively transitioning my dissertation into book format. I’ve learned a lot about myself in so doing. I also cemented relationships that grew out of this blog and interaction. A good friend of mine, Jason Hills, also posted issues in higher education and the profession of philosophy at large. Without his first efforts, I don’t know that I would have continued to stay here. I am very grateful to him.

Unlike my other blog, I will not officially end this blog. I have empowered some to blog here–that is, if they wish to keep it up. If someone approaches me to continue the blog, I can always make someone an administrator, and as the Uber-Lord of this blog, I reserve the right to judge the fittingness of such a request. Initially, this blog was to serve as a space for newly-minted SIU PhDs to share their work, and as we tended to produce Continental and American philosophy PhDs, I thought the name appropriate. That never happened, so the term “Horizon and Fringe” became somewhat mine.  Let me know if you have someone in mind that could take this blog over. They need not necessarily have ties to Southern Illinois University, but philosophically, they should have the interests in line with what I take the spirit that the namesake inspires. I still desire a day that a blog in American and Continental philosophy could take off.

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.