On Station Eleven, Civilizational Collapse, and the PSR

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 13/05/2020 - 11:14pm in

We have been so many ways, have we not? We are blessed most of all in being alive today. We must ask ourselves, 'Why? Why were spared?'...I submit...that everything that has ever happened on this earth has happened for a reason....For it has been revealed to me that the plague of twenty years ago was just the beginning, my angels, only an initial culling of the impure, that last year's pestilence was but further preview and there will be more cullings, far more cullings to come. Emily St. John Mandel (2014) Station Eleven, 59-61 [HT Neil Levy]

Pandemics are never welcome. But the present pandemic is badly timed because the Anglophone and cultural heartland of liberal thought, which for better and for worse is the military and financial epicenter of our civilization, has been struggling with a badly bungled aftermath of a massive financial crisis that ended up reinforcing the advantages of the rich and well-connected by impoverishing state capacity and threatening the privileges and self-confidence of those that formed the bedrock of conservative majorities. These have put state power in the hands of celebrity demagogues and political adventurers with no sense of public welfare and common good, and who strategically try to entrench the politics of zero-sum, and with noxious efficiency try to reduce mutual trust in which they thrive. And so the very powers that were left standing after the cold war, are now more fragile than they have been in two centuries. 

The conceit behind Station Eleven, which has a resolutely Canadian orientation, is that a deadly pandemic, much more deadly than Covid-19, arrives in the aftermath of an "economic collapse, or so everyone called it at the time," (218); I quote from an elegiac moment, in fictional time it is supposed to resonate where we were half a decade ago, when Miranda, a shipping executive who had once been married to a famous actor (Arthur Leander), is looking at "the largest shipping fleet ever assembled...fifty miles east of Singapore Harbor" just before she receives word of the death of Arthur and the first inkling that "the fabric" of civilization would be "unravelling" for a true collapse (239). In her marriage, Miranda had been a kept woman and she sublimated her sense of isolation and entrapment with a cartoon entitled, Station Eleven. The cartoon appears in a limited edition and is the plot device that  ends up connecting the main characters of the story and the invitation to have us reflect obliquely on the meaning of the story told.  

Arthur Leander, by then a faded star, dies while performing Lear in Act 4 of Lear. He dies just as he has been asked (by Gloucester) "Dost thou know me?" And one of the very clever conceits of the novel is that the answer to that question, and the double-life between representation or acting and reality, is unfolded as we try to put the pieces together of the intersections of many lives as if they are a scrambled jigsaw puzzle with constant oblique references to the play and the cartoon. 

And just as a version of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) -- "Nothing will come of nothing" -- structures the action of Lear, so, too, the PSR drives the action of Station Eleven (in addition the passage quoted above, see also p. 96) as we follow along a traveling troupe of musicians and actors (who perform Shakespeare), the so-called Travelling Symphony. And just as there are many oblique angles in the jigsaw, so the PSR has a multiplicity of meanings. For example, for some characters it entails that no moment has special standing and that "everything passes" (249). For others it is the ground for a new vision of life, such as Tyler (249, spoiler alert: "the prophet" quoted above). The vision is propelled by the explanatory demand "to know that" great suffering "happened for a reason." (259)

I read Station Eleven a month ago and it was uncanny how prescient the early pages of the book were then to the unfolding news. And while aesthetically Cormac McCarthy's The Road hangs like a shadow over the book,* and at times Station Eleven insists on making things too explicit -- "Shakespeare had lived in a plague-ridden society with no electricity and so did the Travelling Symphony"  --, there is plenty to admire in St. John Mandel's narrative. And I thought one of the (Sartre inspired) lines captures nicely what makes the present lockdown so harrowing: hell is the absence of the people you long for. (144).

The book stays far from the politics of the pre-pandemic period. A key political point exhibited is that in collapse human diversity reasserts itself; in the state of nature we are shown different kinds of social experiments in human living. At one point the narrator, who turns out to be less omniscient than one realizes, says:

Civilization in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbors, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm, and these places didn't go out of their way to welcome outsiders. (48)

I don't betray much when I note that in Year Twenty in addition to these towns, there there are more sinister forms of communal life and that one of the most idyllic spots of the former American midwest is a regional airport with enough tranquility and safety to develop a Museum of Civilization.

The book suggests that pandemics unsettle previous commitments about transcendence. The most unsettling new religious vision we're presented with, a veritable "death cult," originates in the grave explanatory demands of the PSR, when a boy searches for the hidden meaning behind his lucky survival "why did they die instead of us." (259; see also 260-261.) The boy's creativity is channeled into a new theology: "A new world requires new gods." (261) And, of course, this new theology will draw on familiar elements. Because in the search for meaning, there is also a desire for the safety we associate with (romanticized) childhood ("we long only for the world we born into." 302))  And I wouldn't be surprised to learn, if I am around in twenty years, that away from the current headlines a new popular religion has originated in our midst. As viruses spread death, deadly memes spread alongside them ("insanity is contagious" (261)). 

Like much of dystopian fiction (recall), Station Eleven presents us less with an image of the future and more with an oblique mirror of our times. I would betray its message if I claimed that civilizational collapse is foreseeable. In the book and, presumably, in reality collapse happens when one is making other plans. But what the history of civilizational collapse also tells us (recall here on Sallust; and more abstractly here) is that it is thinkable in advance and often occurs when the knowledge to prevent it is available yet can't be acted on. In the narrative of Station Eleven, such knowledge is lodged in the surviving plays of Shakespeare, which return from palatial theatres to the circulating knowledge of people in deserted landscapes. But it reminds us, too, that whatever may survive from us beyond collapse, may just be be mere ephemera among the interstices of the cult and culture of celebrity. 


*Unlike The Road, Station Eleven also points (throughout the action) toward a new beginning. The earliest signs will be news-reports in which the regularized "announcements of births and deaths and weddings" (263) form the bedrock. The recording of life and death presuppose community; and weddings presuppose possible offspring and property and a planning horizon in which expectations about these need to be regularized. 

Digressions in the Time of Cholera

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/04/2020 - 3:10am in

How are you feeling? If you are like me, you've been in lockdown in your house for several weeks now. 

Likely, your experiences are unlike anything you've felt before. Because of the ubiquity of your experiences--weird as they are--they seem too banal to write down. Yet, it's important to do so. Keep a journal. We know a lot about the Great Plague because people like you and me chose to keep diaries, not letting the narrative be dominated by the few. Look back on what you have learned later. Hopefully there is a later. 

Initially, you might have tried to soldier on as you did before, synchronously teaching your classes through Zoom, and getting utterly exhausted in the process. You might have tried to remain a productive scholar, maybe even crank up your productivity, because that's what Newton did, apparently. Maybe you've started baking, knitting, doing your own home repairs, cutting your own hair. 

But now, as the weeks wax on, all that busyness cannot take away this growing feeling of clarity. This clarity is not merely an intellectual feeling. The ubiquitous sound of cars has all but died away. The air is crisp and clear. The birds have never sung more loudly than before. The streets are all but abandoned. 

There are lots of things presenting themselves to you that you have always known, but that you have never truly known. You always knew that departmental meetings are mostly not needed. Now you really know how many meetings we need (it seems more than a few a year, but fewer than weekly. We met weekly in the months leading up to the closure and all those meetings that seemed so important seem like they can often be handled through a vote by email).--Helen de Cruz, "Clarity"@Cocooners.

Helen's piece deploys the phenomenological method by using an irruption, or bracketing, to make visible the previously suppressed and, thereby, to change our practices. There is no doubt something therapeutic and cathartic about that at a time where one may justifiably feel vulnerable and powerless. I am, of course, partially joking about Helen's embrace of phenomenology. But what we may label as the critique of busyness [or Betriebsamkeit] is a recurring theme of Heidegger's thought.

With Heidegger in mind, it's indeed a bad thing when philosophy becomes any kind of soldiering, including soldiering on. And in so far as Helen is calling for both self-care and a critical attitude toward existing oppressive structures, including structures ordinarily not felt to be oppressive, it is difficult to disagree. In addition, her particular desire to keep track of the injustices and outrages that occur during the pandemic (in order, no doubt, to do better after) is salutary.

And, yet, and yet.

At any given time, the world outside of professional philosophy is full of genuine misery: torture, refugees, famine, abuse, war, discrimination, etc. In addition, professional philosophy itself is characterized by bad structural features and some awful practices many of which not conducive to true philosophy. Against those that wish to say that we live in special times, I am inclined to say back, not from the cosmic perspective Sub specie aeternitatis, but from the all-too-human imperfect limited perspective: the-pandemic-present is not really so special. Not because I buy into a narrative of progress, but rather because suffering, including politically preventable suffering, is part of the human condition. 

By this I do not wish to promote indifference or quietism, or to attack philosophy from a position of service or (since Helen invokes Dewey) a pragmatist conception of philosophy that aims to improve the world. I also do not wish to attack those that wish to bring their expertise or difficult questions (or distinctions) to bear on the present circumstances. 

But insofar as philosophy is necessary, and one's individual philosophising is necessary, this moment is no different than other moments. And while one sometimes can't philosophize on the precipice of disaster -- we have other attachments, needs, and obligations -- , sometimes philosophizing is also the highest and most urgent need.

By this I do not mean that I agree with Godwin's utilitarian argument that we must save Fenelon and not his valet. It is truly doubtful whether from an impersonal perspective of utility or the (philanthropic) policy-maker (or effective altruist) philosophy or the philosopher is more valuable than other activities; or that qua philosopher we must even understand ourselves as always contributing to the "happiness, information, and improvement of others."*

But rather, philosophizing is human need; sometimes as a species escapism; sometimes as a delirious dance above the abyss; sometimes as the reaching for mere clarity, understood as an aesthetic virtue; and now, more than ever, as a crutch to survive cruel indifference. 





*In so far as I am paid by the state or from state subsidized fees these considerations obviously also can and, perhaps, ought to enter into my considerations when I view myself as employee.


On Pandemics, Debt Jubilees, and the Suspension of More or Less Everything

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 28/03/2020 - 12:58am in

I find that I am generally at peace, and that the balance between happiness and sadness on any given day is little different from what it always has been for me. I find that there is liberation in this suspension of more or less everything. In spite of it all, we are free now. Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now. We have little idea what the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this, but it is already perfectly clear that the “discourses” of our society, such as they had developed up to about March 8 or 9, 2020, in all their frivolity and distractiousness, have been decisively curtailed, like the CO2 emissions from the closed factories and the vacated highways.

Not to downplay the current tragedy—as I’ve already acknowledged, it is already affecting me personally in deep and real ways—but I take it that this interruption is a good thing.

The interruption is not total, of course. Normies seem particularly fond of toilet-paper joke memes for the moment, while the extremely online instinctively disdain them. Both the normies and the extremely online are, as they have been since 2016, far too reliant on the language of “apocalypse” and “end times.” These are not the end times; even a nuclear war would not be the end times for all the creatures on earth, among which there will always be at least some extremophiles to relish any new arrangement of the ecosystem. What this is, rather, is a critical shift in the way we think about the human, the natural and the overlap between these.

I have said that we can all just stop doing whatever we were doing before that may have come to ring false to us, and that that is liberating. In my own case, I was working on a book (one that developed, curiously, out of an essay of mine, entitled “It’s All Over,” posted here at The Point a little over a year ago) that was going to articulate how the internet is destroying the fabric of human community. But for the life of me I cannot, in the present circumstances, see the internet as anything other than the force that is holding that fabric together. I used to bemoan virtue signaling. I look at the newly assembled vanguard of the all-volunteer forces of “Wash Your Hands” Twitter, and though I can still discern that tone that used to get me so bent out of shape (“Listen up y’all, today I’m going to break down the virus’s lipid envelope for you”), now I just smile and think: “Good for them. Good for Dr. Brianna Ph.D., and all her loyal followers.”

So I’m going have to rethink that particular book project. But that follows from the much more general point that we are all going to have to rethink everything. .--Justin Smith (March 23) @The Point

During the last few weeks, I was consumed by the task of transforming an exam my 400 students were supposed to take this past Tuesday (March 24) at a particular physical location -- the former morgue of the university hospital, which also happens to be a wifi free zone --  into an online exam at the very same time.+ My department had decided -- but don't ask me how or when -- that it would be in the students' interests to complete the term online rather than postpone exams. My task was made more challenging by three inconvenient facts: moving the exam online meant moving it from one database management software system to another, largely untested one (the two being largely incompatible with each other); I was still busy grading the midterm exam (which needed to be completed a few days before the new exam) and several of my graders were unable to complete their work due to having to care for loved ones; we lack resources to hire folk to help out.* Luckily the tech support people stepped up, and the day of the exam I had time to read Justin's beautiful, elegiac essay.

My initial response to Justin's piece was pure envy. Not just at his skill at capturing the moment, to becoming the indispensable guide to living the intellectual life with integrity, but also envy at the very possibility of inhabiting the suspension of more or less everything. I know that being cooped up with a child in a small apartment life simply can't be suspended. 

For many years, I lived pretty much kitty corner of Prinsengracht 263-267, now known as the Anne Frank Huis. I often wondered, when cycling by, whether I would have started a diary if I had lived there with nothing to do these war years. But now for the first time, I don't identify with her, but with her parents, Otto and Edith wondering how indefinitely the lives of their children could be suspended. But not only did the lack a socially distanced stroll in the park, they lacked the internet, which as Justin points out,  is the "force that is holding" the "fabric of human community" together. As I write, my son is doing homework online.

Even so, against Justin's forecast that we have little idea what "the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this," I am pretty confident we humans are about to face a gigantic debt crisis. Whole sectors of our leveraged economies are imploding (bricks and mortar retailing and real estate, leisure/tourism, sports, etc. [see here for first hints]) and will miss debt repayments on mortgages and other forms of financing. And while the financial sector has an incentive to extend repayment on non-performing loans, whole industries are facing cash crunches if not bankruptcy. So, even if individuals can be supported by a basic income or welfare, as the lockdowns last, no accounting sleight of hand or more easy credit will prevent massive defaults.** 

So, even if we can hope for a genuine economic recovery at the end of the pandemic, and the acceleration of new modes of living together (and, perhaps, apart to slow down virus transmission) that do not fall victim to what Justin correctly criticizes as "human exceptionalism," at some point we will be back in familiar territory. Before long the "wanton delectation" that Justin  bids farewell to will be replaced, first, within the pandemic by (recall) dissolute mirth and gaiety.  And, then, to be followed by political turmoil because debt forgiveness and 'controlled'  inflation will be back on the political agenda. When David Graeber advocates debt jubilees from the anarchist margins, he was ignored. But before long it will be captains of industry that will call it sensible.

I fear an age of debt cancellation and inflation because they strengthen the hands of zero-sum politicians; more dangerous, yet, they upend existing social hierarchies in dramatic fashion. They, thereby, embolden those who need encouragement least, political adventurers. I glance over at my son, and, inspired by Justin, I wish to freeze time, inspired by the poets, in the form of limitation between un-being and being, and try to capture the moment--i will continue the daily digressions; but in the back of my head I hear the voice telling me, compound interest does not respect our wishes.

+My students ended up in timezones very far apart.

*Hence the lack of blogging. I did co-author a piece, with Eric Winsberg, engaging with the headlines published in New Statesman.

**As I write this the US National Debt is $23,542,522,737,422. To put that in perspective, with the policies just enacted it will soon surpass the level relative to GDP just after WWII, a moment when there was huge pent-up demand, a newly mobilized and educated workforce, and a slew of technologies waiting for civilian deployment. 

On Scorekeeping in Professional Philosophy, and Other Credit Economies

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/03/2020 - 4:09am in

Last week, two events occurred that are emblematic of the repeated structural gaslighting of disabled philosophers in which nondisabled philosophers engage and the continued exclusion of disabled philosophers of disability from the profession that almost all philosophers tacitly enforce and reward. One of these events took place in comments on the Daily Nous blog, involving philosophers who seem largely uninformed about ableism in philosophy and indeed uneducated about how power operates in the profession and society more broadly. The other event was the consequence of an event that I have written about before, namely, the recruitment for a position in Bioethics and Disability Studies in the philosophy department at Georgetown.

In the first case, the philosophers in question depoliticized and individualized a politically saturated situation, namely, the unacknowledged use of the insights of disabled philosophers of disability by nondisabled philosophers, appealing to dismissive remarks about political correctness and unexamined views about personal intentions in order to do so. In the second case, the position was awarded to a nondisabled philosopher even though numerous disabled philosophers of disability applied for the job, many of whom have much more knowledge about and experience of ableism and disability than the nondisabled philosopher who got hired.

Both events became part of the public discourse that circulated in philosophy on social media last week. Yet no nondisabled philosopher came forward to challenge the events and draw attention to the ways in which they reinforced the asymmetries of power that currently condition relations between disabled and nondisabled philosophers. ...

Indeed, my disabled philosopher colleagues and I feel betrayed once again.... betrayed by the philosophical community that continues to exploit and distort disabled people’s experiences and wisdom while denying us the authority and professional acknowledgement of that knowledge..--Shelley Tremain @Biopolitical Philosophy [HT Dailynous]

A tacit assumption, even existential commitment, I have long had is that professional philosophy  is characterized by reasonably accurate scorekeeping. We are a relatively small discipline, with even smaller sub-fields, that generally have overlapping workshops/conferences and referee poules. If anything, I tend to worry that professional philosophy is too clubby. So, a few years ago I was stunned to discover material in a handbook chapter that went over the very same correspondence (between A & B) that I had covered in a high profile journal in the field a few years before without mentioning. What made the case neat was that the other scholar worked with the archived papers of B, whereas I had worked with A. (Turns out A & B both kept copies of their own letters. Oh the vanity of academics!)

Because I was on friendly terms with the other scholar (cf. clubbiness), I wrote the other scholar that I was disappointed my piece was not cited. That passive aggressive remark was left unanswered. As the weeks past, I did wonder whether I should write the editor of the handbook and kvetch. But because I had missed deadline after deadline for that very same handbook -- recall I said things are a bit clubby in philosophy -- and then my hasty draft  (on a different topic than the correspondence between A&B) was rejected as inadequate (not entirely unfairly), I decided that I would probably regret pursuing this further. I console myself with the thought that the handbook paper is cited only by its author so far. Undoubtedly, I would be greatly pleased if a book-reviewer pointed out the author's oversight some day.

I was surprised the episode, and in particular the lack of acknowledgment after I noted the omission, stung me so badly; and not for the first time I reflected on the fragility of my professional ego. When Tremain's piece (quoted above) reminded me of my own episode, I tried reading Callard's famous essay ("Is Plagiarism all wrong?") as therapy; but that failed because her first key move, "many of us are prepared to debate the fine points of questions such as “Under what circumstances it is okay to torture someone?”, but only against a background of unquestioned agreement that representing other peoples’ ideas or phrasings as your own is, always and forever, evil" reminded me a bit of one my own thoughts,: "academics tend to treat sins against the profession/discipline far worse than society treats a whole range of awful crimes." When I went back to my essay to make this very point, I was confronted with the fact that the thought I happily attributed to myself wasn't even original with me (I cite a "journalist" as a source).

It is by no means original to recognize that the credit economy of philosophy, and any of the intellectual disciplines, functions, in addition to multiple epistemic roles, as a mechanism to facilitate career advancement and the distribution of jobs, prestige, and even research programs. (Go read Liam Kofi Bright and his co-authors.) And given the immense (and narrow) prestige hierarchy of philosophy, it is predictable that patterns of citation exclusion will impact the most vulnerable colleagues most along many dimensions.

So, there is really no ground for optimism in thinking that the profession, or those like ours, is especially good at scorekeeping for those who may need such accuracy most. (That's in fact compatible with the idea that the scorekeeping is reasonably decent for epistemic purposes.) If the victims of such patterns of exclusion are denied standing to claim their due, there is really no reason to expect change for the better. It is not my task to judge all the particular accusations in Tremain's piece (if only because she is critical of some of my friends as she has been critical of me in the past); but I hope this post helps amplify the structural inequities she diagnoses. 

I have long been pleased by the following thought from The Quran: "Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves." (13:11) I don't think this passage is an instance of victim-blaming (even if it can be abused in that fashion). Rather, it diagnoses that in  bad circumstances collective action (by a people) is needed. As many reformers have noted, we can't eliminate structural injustice merely by doing better individually. If it is too much to expect individuals to do better at scorekeeping given the incentive structure of the status quo, then it is long overdue we collectively change how we organize such scorekeeping or the rules of the game. I am open to suggestions.



On Dissolute Mirth and Gaiety during the Pandemic

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 17/03/2020 - 8:47am in



We are informed by Thucydides, that, during the famous plague of Athens, when death seemed present to every one, a dissolute mirth and gaiety prevailed among the people, who exhorted one another to make the most of life as long as it endured. The same observation is made by Boccace with regard to the plague of Florence. A like principle makes soldiers, during war, be more addicted to riot and expence, than any other race of men. Present pleasure is always of importance; and whatever diminishes the importance of all other objects must bestow on it an additional influence and value.--David Hume "The Sceptic"

The quoted passage is in the service of one of two examples that are intended to show, in concessive and backhanded manner, that philosophical book learning can have an effect on our actions ("in books of philosophy, from which any important effect is to be expected.") I say 'backhanded' because the sceptic thinks that in this instance the philosophical text is merely echoing "common life, and occur upon the most superficial view of human affairs." I use 'concessive' because on the whole Hume's sceptic thinks philosophical texts are, we may say, impotent when it comes to inspiring action.

But Hume's sceptic grants that reading in Thucydides about the mirth and gaiety of the Athenians during the plague, would inspire us to mirth and gaiety during our own, say, epidemic. And in so doing we would, in the face of an epidemic, seize the day, that is to say, philosophically, when imminent death seems likely, we greatly discount the future. It is notable that the sceptic insists on saying the same thing in two registers, viz.,of the so-called vulgar and of the philosophers.

As an aside, 'the sceptic' treats Thucydides and Boccaccio as philosophical authors. This is somewhat amusing because elsewhere Hume, in his own voice, calls the latter an "agreeable libertine" ("Of the Standard of Taste"), not something one can imagine anyone saying about Thucydides (whom Hume always treats with respect and the deference due the first reliable authority).

Be that as it may, the sceptic does not mention the social mechanism emphasized by Thucydides (in Hobbes' translation), "seeing before his eyes such quick revolution, of the rich dying and men worth nothing inheriting their estates. Insomuch as they justified a speedy fruition of their goods even for their pleasure, as men that thought they held their lives but by the day." It isn't just the widespread nearness of death that causes 'licentiousness,' but in particular the undermining effect of death on social hierarchy that causes the dissolution of mores into mirth and gaiety. 

Obviously the sceptic may be right that Thucydides' particular mechanistic explanation may be irrelevant for the claim she wishes to make; and that all that matters to spur us to mirth and gaiety is the description of seizing the day in light of the mortal effects of the plague. Of course, reading such a description is neither necessary nor presumably sufficient to spur on licentiousness during an pandemic. But it may be a triggering cause.

It is peculiar that a predictable side effect of pandemics is dissolute mirth and gaiety. Compared to the panic that seizes the mind in anticipation of invisible, microscopic death creeping up on unsuspecting victims, dissolute mirth and gaiety sounds, even to those that prefer stable social expectations, almost like consolation.



On Comfort Reading, James Herriot, and Love on the Rocks

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/03/2020 - 10:25pm in

Once a upon a time, my wife was having a very crappy day. As it happens the Headcorn railway station in Kent, where she was waiting to catch a train, has a bookcase for books discarded by the public that they use as a charity fundraiser. Her eye fell on the James Herriot paperback pictured below.

Once, we stayed in a delightful bed and breakfast in North Yorkshire, in order to hike in the area. It was a memorable trip because it was my first experience with hiking in England; while it was already late March, the Dales and Moors were covered with snow and had a mesmerizing beauty in their barrenness. When we drove into the village, she pointed to a house and said 'that's James Herriot's house!' Only after she started filling me in, once we were snugly settled in the BnB (which had an astounding breakfast pudding with rhubarb compote), I had vague sense of remembering a TV series, popular forty years ago, which, when it aired in Holland, was called, conveniently, James Herriot.  She had devoured the books as an adolescent. 

When she was telling me the story about the encounter with the James Herriot paperback, I was reminded, once again, that there is, analogous to comfort food, a kind of comfort book. Some books we can safely return to in times of pain. And, oddly enough, despite the fact we know the plot and characters, the sense of escape and adventure may be no less thrilling. In fact, in virtue of our familiarity with these, there is a kind of safety we also feel with old friends.   

While I was pretending to be listening and reflecting on the nature of comfort books, my wife showed me a little rock pictured below. I inferred from the fragment of the last sentence of hers I processed, she found the rock under the James Herriot in the the case. I was now full attention. She said, 'and so I was given a heart.'  (See the two pictures below.)

It turns out there is a facebook group Love on the rocks uk (Painting Rocks ~ Making Smiles). It's mission is this: "Paint a rock, write Facebook love on the rocks uk on the back, take a picture and let us know where your hiding it and then make a stranger smile when they find it! It's free it's easy it's fun! Spread the love." As I write this, it has 96,962 members. While looking for a photo of the rock my wife found, I learned that many of the rock-paintings are delightful, even gorgeous

Anyway, the sappy moral of today's digression is that sometimes the kindness of invisible strangers really is heartwarming. Thank you.




On Analysis

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 18/02/2020 - 10:08pm in

Seven or so years ago, near the beginning of my analysis, I explained to my analyst, after some frustrating experiences, how important it was to me that they always engage with the actual content of what I was saying. I took a huge amount of care in expressing myself – choosing exactly the right words, multiplying distinctions in order to communicate with laser precision – and I didn’t want to be ‘interpreted’ before the letter of what I was saying had been fully attended to....Those seven or so years ago, when I implored my analyst to take me at my word, it was, almost needless to say, only the first way, according to which it contrasts with “spirit,” that I had in mind. Two or three years after that, well into the analysis, I was becoming more comfortable and more curious. The tight control over my words – the only real power I could exert to protect myself and ensure the analysis did not unleash anything too scary – came to feel constricting, even suffocating...

 At the end I exclaimed “I’d like to go back to that injunction I made right at the start. Please make an effort to engage with the letter of what I am saying before trying to hear what is unsaid.” To which they replied, with some, subsequently confessed, hyperbole: “You do realize that is literally the exact opposite of what I’m supposed to be doing?!” (One reason to think that the designation of psychoanalysis as “the Jewish science” may be misleading.) In some sense, of course, what they said is obvious. They are listening for what is unconscious, which is unlikely to be found in the obsessively-controlled language that I wield almost like a weapon. But it startled me nonetheless and I decided to write this post to help work through it.--Simon J. Evnine "For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life"

One recurring fascination is the common root of 'analysis' in analytical philosophy that it shares with the 'analysis' in psychoanalysis. I sometimes wonder why analyse and its cognates had such pull over late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Viennese and Cambridge) minds. I was reminded of this by Simon Evnine who regularly calls my attention to his blog, "The Parergon." I hope he does not mind too much being the trigger occasion for these impressions. I treat him here as the everyman of analytic philosophy in which all of us can be substituted into his place, opaque contexts be damned!

It is noticeable that Simon treats his precision and "care in expressing" in terms of a "weapon." Even when used in self-defense, weapons are explicitly designed to hurt others.* I have noted before (recall) the analytic philosopher's tendency to describe the toolkit of her  craft in terms of surgical (and laser-like) instruments, but in those instances the instruments are meant to heal. Of course, Simon's intent is not to hurt others, but self-protection ("the only real power I could exert to protect myself.")+ 

I do not know a better expression of the fragility at the root of much analytic philosophy. Any badly formulated phrase is a misstep of monumental proportions. The robustness of the whole collapses with the weakest link. This fragility is fueled by "frustrating experiences." Once primed by psychoanalysis, it's hard not to discern the dependent child here. 

I do not mean to suggest that the analytic philosopher's attitude toward rigor  and clarity only expresses fragility. One may as well -- and here I am inspired by Simon's "extravagant letteralism" -- read it as pure holiness (recall here on Carnap). After all, a Torah scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is added or a single letter is deleted. Every sign must be correct. 

A few days ago a lovely blog post by Liam Kofi Bright inspired me to reflect a bit on what the norms of analytic philosophy would have to be if we "conceived of conceptual engineering as a means to enter into lifeworlds of others." I asserted that the non-dominating way of doing so requires a willingness to be transformed by the experience. What I missed saying explicitly then, and I suspect this omission (recall) is part of my professional deformation, is that one cannot (non-dominatingly) enter into the the lifeworld of another without, as Simon shows without saying, being vulnerable.


*Perhaps the memetic repetition-image of Batman slapping Robin inspired this thought.

+In practice, the toolkit is also deployed to advance careers and schools.

On Paul Lodge, on the Manic

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 06/02/2020 - 5:16am in

Sass and Pienkos seem to be confusing what it is like to think manically with something very different, namely, what it is like to perceive what one takes to be expressions of the thought processes of manic subjects. Testimony of others, as well as evidence from my own writing on occasions when I was manic or hypomanic, suggest that the factors that Shenton and Solovay identified were present during these episodes. However, my recollections are not of states of mind in which it seemed to me that my thoughts were disordered. To the extent that there was an experience of myself thinking, my thinking felt more appropriate and adequate to its task than normal. The identified factors did not seem problematic; in fact, quite the contrary.

Sass and Pienkos also observe that it is useful to think of manic thought in terms of “mattering … or rather of how things matter”. They suggest this partly involves “a form of distraction—an inability to ignore environmental stimuli that are capable of arousing lively but ephemeral interest in the patient, but that, in a normal individual, would remain on the margin of awareness, outside the focus of attention”; or, more prosaically, “there being too many things that matter, and that come to matter too quickly and fleetingly, for the individual”. Here Sass and Pienkos point to another phenomenon that is criterial in DSM-V (“distractibility”). And while they again seem to switch between attempting to describe what it is like for the subject and attempting to describe what the subject is doing (i.e., thinking in a distracted way), Sass and Pienkos do make an observation that I believe is crucial: namely, that mania involves a sense of there being many more things that demand attention than usual.

My own experience concurs with the main features of Sass and Pienkos’ account. But their suggestion that this is all somehow too much for the subject needs qualification. For a proper understanding of these phenomena, it is important to recognize that during at least some manic and hypomanic episodes, there is a sense of an exponential increase in objects of attention. And this brings with it an exhilarating sense of being exposed to an unlimited number of objects and their interconnections all at once, and a sense that one is being offered a window into the true nature of reality. This is not to say that there is never a feeling that this is all too much. Indeed, this feeling is usually a component of the way in which mania and hypomania come to an end, if allowed to run their course without external intervention. And a sense of being overwhelmed may also arise if one feels unable to communicate what one is experiencing to those around one. But for the manic subject, at the heart of the experience is the feeling of successful insight.--Paul Lodge "What Is It Like to Be Manic? " @The Oxonian Review

I have known Paul since his participation in the early modern seminar of April, 2001, that is, nearly my whole academic career. The North American circle of early modern scholars is fairly small, and my supervisor was at the center of much of the intellectual traffic among them in those days. Because we both had a rare scholarly interest in De Volder -- Paul because of De Volder's correspondence with Leibniz; I because he corresponded with Huygens --, we even exchanged some emails. But we did not become friends at first because I found him dour and aloof, which in my insecure moments (which were plenty) I interpreted as arrogance.

Years went by with minor mutual acknowledgment. That changed one morning. I was attending my supervisor's fest at Princeton (september 2014). I was very jet-lagged and trying to find espresso in Princeton early in the morning. And while I was already a coffee-snob, I ended up in the Starbucks on Nassau street which mercifully opens before dawn. (I remember the street name for obvious reasons.) There I found Paul comfortably seated. I joined him. For the next three to four hours we talked; or, I should say, he talked and I listened under the sway of his unexpected charisma and fascinated by the energy of his enthusiasm. I don't think I reveal any improper intimacy, if I say (recall this post) that most of what Paul talked about was his interest in the kind of Christianity exhibited by the great social liberal T.H. Green (see also this post).  

Since my college days I have known that I am fascinated -- with a mixture of intense attraction and repulsion -- by intellectuals who lecture with enthusiastic conviction. I'd like to think this is due to the fact that I find my own thought too conflicted and uncertain, and so I am constantly surprised by what seems to be an entirely different form of consciousness. Despite my mental protests, such enthusiasts have focused my attention, even shaped my interest into Newton, Milton, metaphysics, philosophy of biology amongst other topics. 

Reading Paul's essay in the Oxonian Review brought back the visceral intensity of our two mornings in Princeton. He was not manic, but the heightened awareness of the possible fragility of one's (ahh) orientation toward experience infused his warmth. At the time, I commented on the fact that he seemed a changed person, something he acknowledged. Meeting him almost certainly inspired me to write on my own struggle with depression (recall here).

While I am pretty sure the tendency toward both manic and depressive episodes runs in my own family, the one instance of mania of my own I vividly recall was produced as a side-effect of a heavy prednisone treatment prescribed to me to give me a kind of re-set to reverse the effect of skin allergies. (It worked, although I experienced irritable skin and psyche for another seven years or so.) For about a week, I wasn't just insomniac, but the words streamed out of me often by way of lengthy and spontaneous emails to anybody that crossed my mind. 

I have not had the nerve to reread those letters. In part because I am mortified by what I'll find I thought worth confiding to at 2am to my Dean, my ex-lovers, my accountant, and quite a few professional (ahh) elders, etc. What I do recognize now is the incredible tact of most people. 

But I recognize Paul's claim that in a manic period there being many things that demand attention at once, and that one seems capable, even skilled, at giving them such attention at once. I would describe this as a kind of immersion in the vivid connectedness of things. In these digressions I try to capture this imperfectly with my habit of cross-connections. This involves, as Paul notes, a sense of having been offered a "glimpse into a more truthful relationship to existence." My only quibble is the word 'truthful.' For me, it would be more apt to say, a "glimpse into a more intimate relationship to existence." 

Because of my aversion to the cult of genius, I am often wary of bringing philosophy and mania into association with each other (if only not to encourage the young into experimenting with mind altering drugs); but see this video. And from the perspective of the professional philosopher, there is little reason to do so. Often our ways of analysis encourage (ahh) us to see the disconnectedness of things. We pretend not to notice, perhaps become incapable of noticing, the lateral connections that make any conceptual clarification possible. While I am a critic of the excesses and side-effects* this relentless focus on a clearly defined puzzles produces, at bottom it appeals to my aesthetic sense. 

The aesthetic is not nothing, perhaps it's fundamental.

But sometimes we can experience philosophy as an immersion, an intimate immersion, in which the connectedness-of-the-infinite-cosmos calls out to us. And I can, thus, attest that even a very partial intellectual love of god generates a joy, heightened by the gratitude one is still around to experience it.


*One of  the most damaging side-effects is that one can philosophize numbly without feeling. Of course, at the worst of times such escapism may (recall) also be a life-line. 

On Eric's Advice to his son (David)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/01/2020 - 5:49am in

Today my son David leaves for Oxford, where he'll spend Hilary and Trinity terms as an exchange student in psychology. He is in his third year as a Cognitive Science major at Vassar College, soaring toward grad school in cognitive science or psychology. He is already beginning to think like a graduate student. Here's some advice I offer him and others around the transition from undergraduate to graduate study:

(1.) Do fewer things better. I lead with this advice because it was a lesson I had to learn and relearn and that I still struggle with. In your classes, three A pluses are better than five As. It's better to have two professors who say you are the most impressive student they've seen in several years than to have four professors who say you are one of the three best students this year. It's better to have one project that approaches publishable quality than three projects that earn an ordinary A. Whether it's admission to top PhD programs, winning a grant, or winning a job, academia is generally about standing out for unusual excellence in one or two endeavors. Similarly for publishing research articles: No one is interested to hear what the world's 100th-best expert on X has to say about X. Find a topic narrow enough, and command it so thoroughly, that you can be among the world's five top experts on X. The earlier in your career you are, the narrower the X has to be for such expertise to be achievable. But even as an advanced undergrad or early grad student, it's not impossible to find interesting but very narrow X's. Find that X, then kill it.--Eric Schwitzebel "How to Be an Awesome First-Year Graduate Student (or a Very Advanced Undergrad)" [HT Dailynous]

First, let me start by wishing David a wonderful time at Oxford! 

Schwitzgebel's letter was widely circulated approvingly by my academic friends on social media. And most of his advice (2-6) struck me as quite sensible, even wise--so go read the whole thing first. But I am ambivalent about (1.) [That's the the one I quoted above.] The reason I am ambivalent is that I recognize the hard truths underlying Eric's advice: there are plenty of smart folk. Specialization is the key to be noticed. To professionalize early ("have one project that approaches publishable quality") gives you a leg up in the academic rat race. It is now no rarity anymore to find MA students trying (and succeeding) to publish journal articles. As Nathan Ballantyne puts it in a charming review (of a recent book by Bill Lycan) "younger [professional] philosophers all know that reading outside of your field does not get you a career. It just doesn't pay the bills." (Read the whole review.)

But here is another hard truth: time is a scarce good. Time for research is, perhaps, the scarcest good. Pretty the much the only time of our life when we are free to read and explore is during our undergraduate and graduate (or as the English say: post-graduate) periods. Perhaps, during a generous post-doc, too. Yes, as we know from Eric's blog, he keeps up a regular habit of reading and ranging widely so it's possible. But among administrative, teaching, grant-making, and family duties there is very little time for curiosity. (Oh, and let's not get started on networking.) Our whole professional lives are oriented toward managing our times in effective ways so we can produce 'high quality' publications. I suspect, but haven't asked Eric, that he is like me and uses the development of new courses as means to keep educating himself on new topics. Perhaps -- but now I am projecting -- his excellent blog is also a means to find good excuses to keep his interests broad.

The bottom line is that we have near limitless freedom to explore intellectual avenues during our education: seminars, speakers, reading groups, etc. This is the period of our lives where we can create very solid foundations for our future intellectual habits; when we can learn different academic vocabulary and methods, and also quietly mull connections some of which invisible to our brilliant teachers. We learn to talk with folk from wide variety of academic disciplines and orientations. Most importantly, we learn to ask fruitful questions--perhaps the most important and underappreciated academic skill. This is especially important when we encounter intellectual obstacles not amenable to easy resolution.

As an aside, some of this academic learning and curiosity driven intellectual development can happen in relaxation time. I say this not to reject Eric's suggestion (6): "Draw bright lines between work time and relaxation time." This is sound, even existentially important advice. But when I was a graduate student I had (recall) a dog. I met folks from all walks of life in dog-park. But this also included quite a number of other academics. This has generated not just life-long friendships -- dogs > cats! --, but also exposed me to brilliant minds doing fascinating stuff. This has generated life-long conversations, including ones that have shaped my research trajectory.

Okay, to return my ambivalence. And I am not quite sure how to put it. In part because I am sure Eric's advice to David may well be right for David. But I worry there is such a thing, even a rather solid entity, as premature specialization. Lots of very bright and exciting minds on the cutting edge become dull academics with little to say of interest and so end up saying the same thing over and over again. (Please fill in your own favorite examples!) To experience this first hand is one of the few advantages of age. I even suspect that early intellectual hyper-specialization has something to do with the phenomenon of the diminishing rate of return from basic science that economists have been puzzling about. For, the focus on killing the narrow X can also end up killing off curiosity.



Amy Olberding on Politeness and (Individual and Social) Anger

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 16/01/2020 - 7:19am in

Not letting fly with an uncivil rebuke also means I cannot as readily from such encounters---to stay civil is, more often to stay engaged. By trying to be well-disposed toward others, I try to preserve social connection, even when doing so is displeasing, alienating, and terrible. The defiant optimism underwriting this resolve would have me hold out hope that we will all be better for making such efforts, that we can find some fellow feeling, some scrap of shared humanity that will enable better (or at least not worse) forms of shared life. Amy Olberding (2019) The Wrong of Rudeness: LEarning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy, p. 152 (emphasis in original).

While I very much like Amy Olderding's internet persona, I was a bit apprehensive about reading her book. I had been convinced by Johnson and Kaziarian (remember NewAPPS?) that civility policing was a means for the powerful to police the vulnerable while they (the powerful) could simultaneously ignoring the real harms emanating from micro-aggressions (see here Bejan on Hobbes) and other forms of incitement by way of (to quote Mill, recall here and here) vituperative speech.

I was, thus, worried that Olberding's book would celebrate the virtues of decorum and thereby lecture others on how to play nice. Even so, I was also predisposed to like the book because I am committed to the idea that if there is any idea worth preserving from the nexus of practices and ideological concepts connected to the word 'civilization' that we, qua public facing philosophers, should keep the conversation, including silences and long-stutters, going.

From the start, Olberding disarms the reader by presenting herself as prone to rudeness, even enjoying it. And she also explicitly recognizes that in particular personal and political circumstances, "sometimes incivility will be the best course" even if, in a humane agent, "it will be tinged with regret and distress." (151) Sometimes incivility or righteous anger is the only response that accords with our own dignity and sense of injustice, even if we know that "abandoning good manners, of failing to try to be police, will magnify many social ills and inequalities." (46) There are plenty of tragic circumstances, where all options are subpar. So, I did not find much to disagree in the book, and much astuteness. In what follows, I reflect on a minor thread that runs through her argument.

One way Olberding understands anger is as a species of truth-telling. And so hiding anger is a means of disguising from others what we really feel. We become inauthentic. In addition, such self-policing can have two costly effects. First, it can take real self-undermining effort at psychological self-management in internalizing anger.  By contrast, as Olberding notes "deliberate rudeness provides the chance to set down the taxing burden of hiding what I really think or feel." (2) I return to this in the next paragraph. Second, by not making (to use language from Hume and Adam Smith) one's resentment felt at some social harm one can have a non-trivial negative impact on regulating norms of justice. Since justice is one of the few social institutions devoted to truth disguising or hiding it can can undermine its functioning. This is why I largely agree with Srinivasan's defense of righteous anger.

Now, Olberding notes that "to be polite...entails getting good at managing an internal economy of attention." (32) This is hard work and requires imitation and practice such that it becomes habitual. That is to say, in addition for there to be a social pay-off (in keeping conversation going, and creating possibility of fellow feeling), politeness has a personal pay-off: one becomes, as it were, better at concentrating, especially concentrating on  what really matters to oneself. (This can be articulated in terms of efficiency; but despite the use of 'economy' and Olberding's decision to treat "attention as a kind of currency," (32) I don't think that fits Olberding's confucian framework.) The key point is that attention is a scarce good, and that to maintain and focus it requires considerable skill.

There is something very important lurking here. But to unearth it means we need to challenge the idea that anger is fundamentally a form of truth-telling (although it can be that). A psychoanalytic commonplace is that anger or frustration is a way to disguise from oneself other uncomfortable feelings or an instance of what the freudians call displacement. I find this thought a useful starting point whenever I need to calm down or have managed to calm down from my anger or frustration! One does not have to buy into much of psychoanalysis to see that this can be a plausible mechanism in many circumstances, personal and political.So, anger then is not itself a form of truth-telling although it can be a significant clue for the existence of other problems (this idea can be found in Machiavelli, too). 

As the nod to Machiavelli implies this is not just an individual issue. The whole business model of contemporary social media and news organizations is to habitually induce anger in order to capture your eye balls. The economy of attention is guided by the skillful manipulation of our reactive attitudes without providing opportunity to (learn to) manage their proportionality with regard to their causes and the possible effects. The cumulative effect is a debilitating and infantile public culture.  

When anger is a (voluntary or involuntary) mechanism to disguise from oneself what one feels, it also prevents intimacy or connectedness with others. So, it can be a form of self-undermining at the individual or personal level. Insert your favorite saying of Yoda here. Of course, lecturing somebody who is angry that by being angry they are self-undermining socially or politically can be infuriating, especially when the causes of such anger are conveniently ignored!

The previous paragraphs are not really a criticism of Olberding. Because what she points to is that the practice of individual and social politeness is, in addition to some other benefits, a means to making space for allowing the sources of one's anger and frustration to become transparent to one's personal and social self/selves. So, politeness can be a means to facilitate norms and practices that are truth conductive. It is also, thus, a means of reorienting our attention to more skillful and wiser agency.