A Beautiful Short Documentary Takes You Inside New York City’s Last Great Chess Store

Chess Forum in Greenwich Village is, like Gramercy Typewriter and the Upper East Side’s Tender Buttons, the sort of shop New Yorkers feel protective of, even if they’ve never actually crossed the threshold.

“How can it still exist?” is a question left unanswered by "King of the Night," Lonely Leap’s lovely short profile of Chess Forum’s owner, Imad Khachan, above, but no matter. We're just glad it does.

The store, located a block and a half south of Washington Square, looks older than it is. Khachan, hung out his shingle in 1995, after five years as an employee of the now-defunct Village Chess Shop, a rift that riled the New York chess community.




Now, things are much more placid, though the film incorrectly suggests that Chess Forum is the only refuge where chess loving New Yorkers can avail themselves of an impromptu game, take lessons, and buy sets. (There are also shops in Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Upper East Side.) That said, Chess Forum might not be wrong to call itself "New York's last great chess store." It may well be the best of the last.

The narrow shop’s interior triggers nostalgia without seeming calculation, an organic reminder of the Village’s Bohemian past, when beret-clad folkies, artists, and students wiled away hours at battered wooden tables in its many cheap cafes and bars. (Two blocks away, sole survivor Caffé Reggio’s ambience is intact, but the prices have kept pace with the neighborhood, and the majority of its clientele are clutching guidebooks or the digital equivalent thereof.)

Khachan, born in Lebanon to Palestinian refugees, gives a warm welcome to tourists and locals alike, especially those who might make for an uneasy fit at tonier neighborhood establishments.

In an interview with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, he recalled a “well-dressed and highly educated doctor who would come in wearing his Harvard logo sweater, and lose repeatedly to a homeless man who was a regular at Chess Forum and a chess master.”

The game also provides common ground for strangers who share no common tongue. In Jonathan Lord’s rougher New York City chess-themed doc, Passport Play, Khachan points out how diagrams in chess books speak volumes to experienced players, regardless of the language in which the book is written.

The store’s mottos also bear witness to the value its owner places on face-to-face human interaction:

Cool in the summer, warm in the winter and fuzzy all year long.

Chess Forum: An experience not a transaction

Smart people not smart phones.  (You can play a game of chess on your phone, Khachan admits, but don't fool yourself into thinking that it's giving you a full chess experience.)

An hour of play costs about the same as a small latte in a coffeehouse chain (whose prevalence Khachan refers to as the Bostonization of NYC.) Senior citizens and children, both revered groups at Chess Forum, get an even better deal—from $1/hour to free.

Although the store’s official closing time is midnight, Khachan, single and childless, is always willing to oblige players who would stay later. His solitary musings on the neighborhood’s wee hours transformation supply the film’s title and meditative vibe, while reminding us that this gentle New York character was originally drawn to the city by the specter of a PhD in literature at nearby NYU.

Readers who would like to contribute to the health of this independently owned New York City establishment from afar can do so by purchasing a chess or backgammon set online.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City through December 20th in the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Interests Gradually Wider and More Impersonal”

Advice on how to grow old frequently comes from such banal or bloodless sources that we can be forgiven for ignoring it. Public health officials who dispense wisdom may have good intentions; pharmaceutical companies who do the same may not. In either case, the messages arrive in a form that can bring on the despair they seek to avert. Elderly people in well-lit photographs stroll down garden paths, ballroom dance, do yoga. Bulleted lists punctuated by dry citations issue gently-worded guidelines for sensible living. Inoffensive blandness as a prescription for living well.

At the other extreme are profiles of exceptional cases—relatively spry individuals who have passed the century mark. Rarely do their stories conform to the model of abstemiousness enjoined upon us by professionals. But we know that growing old with dignity entails so much more than diet and exercise or making it to a hundred-and-two. It entails facing death as squarely as we face life. We need writers with depth, sensitivity, and eloquence to deliver this message. Bertrand Russell does just that in his essay “How to Grow Old,” written when the philosopher was 81 (sixteen years before he eventually passed away, at age 97).




Russell does not flatter his readers’ rationalist conceits by citing the latest science. “As regards health,” he writes, “I have nothing useful to say…. I eat and drink whatever I like, and sleep when I cannot keep awake.” (We are inclined, perhaps, to trust him on these grounds alone.) He opens with a drily humorous paragraph in which he recommends, “choose your ancestors well,” then he issues advice on the order of not dwelling on the past or becoming a burden to your children.

But the true kernel of his short essay, “the proper recipe for remaining young,” he says, came to him from the example of a maternal grandmother, who was so absorbed in her life, “I do not believe she ever had time to notice she was growing old." “If you have wide and keen interests and activities in which you can still be effective,” Russell writes. “you will have no reason to think about the merely statistical fact of the number of years you have already lived, still less of the probable shortness of your future.”

Such interests, he argues, should be “impersonal,” and it is this quality that loosens our grip. As Maria Popova puts it, “Russell places at the heart of a fulfilling life the dissolution of the personal ego into something larger.” The idea is familiar; in Russell’s hands it becomes a meditation on mortality as ever-timely as the so-often-quoted passages from Donne’s “Meditation XVII." Philosopher and writer John G. Messerly calls Russell’s concluding passage “one of the most beautiful reflections on death I have found in all of world literature.”

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

Read Russell’s “How to Grow Old” in full here. And see many more eloquent meditations on aging and death—from Henry Miller, André Gide, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Grace Paley—at Brain Pickings.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hunter S. Thompson, Existentialist Life Coach, Presents Tips for Finding Meaning in Life

hst

Image by Steve Anderson, via Wikimedia Commons

At first blush, Hunter S. Thompson might be the last person you would want to ask for advice. After all, his daily routine involved copious amounts of cocaine, LSD and Chivas Regal. He once raked a neighbor’s house with gunfire. And he once almost accidentally blew up Johnny Depp. Yet beneath his gonzo persona lay a man who thought deeply and often about the meaning of it all. He was someone who spent a lifetime staring into the abyss.

So in 1958, before he became a counter-culture icon, before he even started writing professionally, Thompson wrote a long letter about some of the big questions in life to his friend, Hume Logan, who was in the throes of an existential crisis.




While the first couple of paragraphs warns against the dangers of seeking advice, Hunter then expounds at length on some deep, and surprisingly level-headed truths. Below are a few pearls of wisdom:

  • Whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this!
  • You might also try something called Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre. These are merely suggestions. If you’re genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you’re doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.)
  • To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. We do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.
  • Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.
  • Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know— is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

The letter was published in the 2013 book, Letters of Note. You can read it in its entirety below.

April 22, 1958
57 Perry Street
New York City

Dear Hume,

You ask advice: ah, what a very human and very dangerous thing to do! For to give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal— to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

I am not a fool, but I respect your sincerity in asking my advice. I ask you though, in listening to what I say, to remember that all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it. What is truth to one may be disaster to another. I do not see life through your eyes, nor you through mine. If I were to attempt to give you specific advice, it would be too much like the blind leading the blind.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles … ” (Shakespeare)

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect— between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

But why not float if you have no goal? That is another question. It is unquestionably better to enjoy the floating than to swim in uncertainty. So how does a man find a goal? Not a castle in the stars, but a real and tangible thing. How can a man be sure he’s not after the “big rock candy mountain,” the enticing sugar-candy goal that has little taste and no substance?

The answer— and, in a sense, the tragedy of life— is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.) There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.

I’m going to steer clear of the word “existentialism,” but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts. You might also try something called Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre. These are merely suggestions. If you’re genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you’re doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.) But back to the answer. As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires— including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.

Naturally, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ve lived a relatively narrow life, a vertical rather than a horizontal existence. So it isn’t any too difficult to understand why you seem to feel the way you do. But a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.

So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know— is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

If I don’t call this to a halt, I’m going to find myself writing a book. I hope it’s not as confusing as it looks at first glance. Keep in mind, of course, that this is MY WAY of looking at things. I happen to think that it’s pretty generally applicable, but you may not. Each of us has to create our own credo— this merely happens to be mine.

If any part of it doesn’t seem to make sense, by all means call it to my attention. I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that— no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You’ll have lots of company.

And that’s it for now. Until I hear from you again, I remain,

your friend,
Hunter

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in February 2015.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Alan Watts Dispenses Wit & Wisdom on the Meaning of Life in Three Animated Videos

Since his death in 1973, the popular British philosopher, writer, speaker, and onetime-Episcopal-priest-turned-student-of-Zen-and-wildly-eclectic-countercultural-spiritual-thinker Alan Watts has become a cottage industry of sorts. And if you were unfamiliar with his work, you might think—given this description and the mention of the word “industry”—that Watts founded some sort of self-help seminar series, the kind in which people make a considerable investment of time and money.

In a sense, he did: the Alan Watts Organization (previously known as the Alan Watts Electronic University, the Alan Watts Center, or the Alan Watts Project) maintains Watts’ prolific audio and video archives. Founded in the last year of his life by Watts and his son Mark, the Organization charges for access to most of his work. The collections are pricey. Albums of talks on such subjects as Buddhism and Comparative Philosophy and Religion are extensive, but come at a cost.




Though the organization offers free content, you could find yourself spending several hundred dollars to hear the collected Watts lectures. It's money the Mark Watts suggests covers the “substantial undertaking” of digitizing hundreds of hours of recordings on lacquered disks and magnetic reels. These are noble and necessary efforts, but fans of Watts will know that hundreds of selections from his deeply engaging talks are also freely available on YouTube, many of them with nifty animations and musical accompaniment, like the videos here from After Skool.

Watts would likely have been pleased with this situation—he loved to give out wisdom widely and kept no esoteric trade secrets. But he was also, by his own admission, “a spiritual/philosophical entertainer,” who made a living telling people some of the most unsettling, counterintuitive metaphysical truths there are. He did it with humor, erudition and compassion, with intellectual clarity and rhetorical aplomb.

So what did he have to tell us? That we should join the church of Alan Watts? Attend his next lecture and buy his book? Shape our lives into an emulation of Alan Watts? Though he wore the trappings of a Western expositor of Eastern thought, and embraced all kinds of non-traditional beliefs and practices, Watts was too ironical and detached to be a guru. He couldn’t take himself seriously enough for that.

If there’s any one thread that runs through the incredibly broad range of subjects he covered, it’s that we should never take ourselves too seriously either. We buy into stories and ideas and think of them as concrete entities that form the boundaries of identity and existence: stories like thinking of life as a “journey” on the way to some specific denouement. Not so, as Watts says in the animated video at the top. Life is an art, a form of play: “the whole point of the dancing is the dance.”

But what about the meaning of life? Is Alan Watts going to reveal it in the last course of his ten-week session (payable in installments)? Will we discover it in a series of self-improvement packages? No. The meaning of life he says, is life. “The situation of life is optimal.” But how is anyone supposed to judge what's good without unchanging external standards? A classic Zen story about a Chinese farmer offers a concise illustration of why we may have no need—and no real ability—to make any judgments at all.

You’ll find many more free excerpts of Watts’ lectures—of varying lengths and with or without animations, on YouTube. To get a further taste of his spiritual and philosophical distillations, see the links below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Journal of Controversial Ideas, Co-Founded by Philosopher Peter Singer, Will Publish & Defend Pseudonymous Articles, Regardless of the Backlash

Photo of Peter Singer by Mat Vickers, via Wikimedia Commons

Australian bioethicist Peter Singer has made headlines as few philosophers do with claims about the moral status of animals and the “Singer solution to world poverty,” and with far more controversial positions on abortion and disability. Many of his claims have placed him outside the pale for students at Princeton, his current employer, where he has faced protests and calls for his termination. “I favor the ability to put new ideas out there for discussion,” he has said in response to what he views as a hostile academic climate, “and I see an atmosphere in which some people may be intimated from doing that.”

For those who, like him, make controversial arguments such as those for euthanizing “defective infants," for example, as he wrote about in his 1979 Practical Ethics, Singer has decided to launch a new venue, The Journal of Controversial Ideas. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, the journal aims to be “an annual, peer-reviewed, open-access publication that will print worthy papers, and stand behind them, regardless of the backlash.” The idea, says Singer, “is to establish a journal where it’s clear from the name and object that controversial ideas are welcome.”




Is it true that “controversial ideas” have been denied a hearing elsewhere in academia? The widely-covered tactics of “no-platforming” practiced by some campus activists have created the impression that censorship or illiberalism in colleges and universities has become an epidemic problem. No so, argues Princeton’s Eddie Glaude, Jr., who points out that figures who have been disinvited to speak at certain institutions have been welcomed on dozens of other campuses “without it becoming a national spectacle.” Sensationalized campus protests are “not the norm,” as many would have us believe, he writes.

But the question Singer and his co-founders pose isn’t whether controversial ideas get aired in debates or lecture forums, but whether scholars have been censored, or have censored themselves, in the specialized forums of their fields, the academic journals. Singer’s co-founder/editor Jeff McMahan, professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, believes so, as he told the BBC in a Radio 4 documentary called “University Unchallenged.” The new journal, said McMahan, “would enable people whose ideas might get them in trouble either with the left or with the right or with their own university administration, to publish under a pseudonym.”

Those who feel certain positions might put their career in jeopardy will have cover, but McMahan declares that “the screening procedure” for publication “will be as rigorous as those for other academic journals. The level of quality will be maintained.” Some skepticism may be warranted given the journal’s intent to publish work from every discipline. The editors of specialist journals bring networks of reviewers and specialized knowledge themselves to the usual vetting process. In this case, the core founding team are all philosophers: Singer, McMahan, and Francesca Minerva, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ghent.

One might reasonably ask how that process can be “as rigorous” on this wholesale scale. Though the BBC reports that there will be an “intellectually diverse international editorial board," board members are rarely very involved in the editorial operations of an academic journal. Justin Weinberg at Daily Nous has some other questions, including whether the degree, or existence, of academic censorship even warrants the journal’s creation. “No evidence was cited,” he writes “to support the claim that ‘a culture of fear and self-censorship’ is preventing articles that would pass a review process” from seeing publication.

Furthermore, Weinberg says, the journal’s putative founders have given no argument “to allay what seems to be a reasonable concern that the creation of such a journal will foster more of a ‘culture of fear and self-censorship’ compared to other options, or that it plays into and reinforces expertise-undermining misconceptions about academia bandied about in popular media that may have negative effects…. Given that the founding team is comprised of people noted for views that emphasize empirical facts and consequences, one might reasonably hope for a public discussion of such evidence and arguments.”

Should scholars publish pseudonymously in peer-reviewed journals? Shouldn’t they be willing to defend their ideas on the merits without hiding their identity? Is such subterfuge really necessary? “Right now,” McMahan asserts, “in current conditions something like this is needed…. I think all of us will be very happy if, and when, the need for such a journal disappears, and the sooner the better.” Given that the journal’s co-founders paint such a broadly dire picture of the state of academia, it’s reasonable to ask for more than anecdotal evidence of their claims. A few high-profile incidents do not prove a widespread culture of repression.

It is also “fair to wonder,” writes Annabelle Timsit at Quartz, “whether the board of a journal dedicated to free speech might have a bias toward publishing particularly controversial ideas in the interest of freedom of thought” over the interests of good scholarship and sound ethical practice.

via Daily Nous

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Philosophy of Hayao Miyazaki: A Video Essay on How the Traditional Japanese Religion Shinto Suffuses Miyazaki’s Films

Even if you've never watched it before, you always know a Studio Ghibli movie when you see one, and even more so in the case of a Studio Ghibli movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki. That goes for his work's common aesthetic qualities as well as its common thematic ones, the latter of which run deep, all the way down to the traditional Japanese religion of Shinto. Or so, anyway, argues "The Philosophy of Miyazaki," the Wisecrack video essay above that finds in Shinto, a belief system premised on the notion that "we share our world with a variety of gods and spirits called kami," the qualities that give "the films of Miyazaki and his team of badasses at Studio Ghibli that extra Miyazaki feel."

Even viewers with no knowledge of Shinto and its role in Japanese society — where 80 percent of the population professes to practice its traditions — can sense that "a recurrent theme running throughout all of Miyazaki's films is a love for nature." Going back at least as far as 1984's World Wildlife Federation-approved Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, whose heroine takes up the fight on behalf of a race of large bugs, Miyazaki's work has depicted the exploitation of nature by the many and the defense of nature by the few.




None of his films have rendered kami quite so vividly as My Neighbor Totoro, the titular creature being just one of the woodland spirits that surround and even inhabit a human family's house. In the worldviews of both Shinto teaching and Miyazaki's cinema, nature isn't just nature but "part of the divine fabric of reality, and as such deserves our respect."

This contrasts sharply with Aristotle's claim that "nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man," and indeed to America's idea of Manifest Destiny and the consequent subjugation of all things to human use. Anyone who's only seen one or two of Miyazaki's movies would be forgiven for assuming that he considers all technology evil, but a closer viewing (especially of his "final" film The Wind Rises about the designer of the Zero fighter plane, which depicts the invention itself as a thing of beauty despite its use in war) reveals a subtler message: "Because we're focused on nature only through the lens of science and technology, we're blinded to the true essence of things." We'll learn to live in a proper balance with nature only when we learn to see that essence, and Miyazaki has spent his career doing his part to reveal it to us.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Data Visualization of Modern Philosophy, 1950-2018

Those of us who think of ourselves as philosophy enthusiasts remain free to read and think about whatever we like, no matter how obscure, marginal, or out-of-fashion the ideas. But the academy presents a different picture, one fraught with political maneuvering, funding issues, and fretting about tenure. Does professionalization do philosophy a disservice by codifying the kinds of problems we should be thinking and writing about? Or do we need professional philosophy for exactly this reason? It depends on who you ask.

One argument against the academy consists in pointing out that many, if not most, of history’s influential philosophers have been amateurs in one sense or another: grinding away at day jobs, for example, like Baruch Spinoza, or living on family money, like Ludwig Wittgenstein, two radical philosophical outsiders whose Ethics and Tractatus, respectively, have been turned into data visualizations by Maximilian Noichl. It’s interesting to speculate about how these thinkers, both so visually-inclined, would respond to the treatment.




Noichl’s latest project, now in its third and, so far, final iteration, involves tracing “The Structure of Recent Philosophy from the 1950s to this day.” Clearly implied, but unstated in his description is that these maps chart only the specialized interests of academic philosophy, but the omission highlights the fact that contemporary philosophical work outside the academy receives no recognition in the literature and, therefore, hardly qualifies as philosophy at all under current strictures.

To construct the map at the top (click here to see the full infographic, then click it again for a high resolution version), Noichl aggregated over 50,000 articles “from various philosophy journals.” The journals all come from Clarivate Analytics Web of Science collection, which skews the selection. Noichl began with a "snow-ball-sampling (a few thousand papers)," then extended his sample by "repeatedly looking at the most cited publications." The resulting papers were then “spatially distributed according to their citation-patterns.”

Every point on the graphic represents one article. Noichl used two different algorithms to sort and group the data, and his explanatory text on the original graphic at his site explains the technical details. The clusters are “a bit heterogenic in their nature,” he writes.

While some are thematic, others are determined strongly by specific persons or eras, which seems in itself to be an interesting observation about the structure of the literature….. [T]here is… a remarkable cleft between theory of science and epistemology. And the ways various historical clusters group themselves around moral philosophy suggests an internal relation. We can also observe that continental philosophy seems to split into two halves…

The exercise presents us with a summary image of some of the field’s most persistent concerns for the past 60 years or so. I can imagine historians of philosophy—and maybe critics of academic philosophy—making excellent use of this colorfully organized data. Noichl vaguely mentions a possible use of the map as a “reality check for some debates.” The question of what it contributes to philosophical thinking remains open. And we might ask whether big data does philosophy a disservice by algorithmically reproducing certain existing conditions, rather than critically interrogating them as philosophers have always done.

Yet it’s clear that data visualizations are now standard tools for teaching and learning any number of subjects, and in many cases, they offer helpful shorthand, as does another of Noichl’s interactive graphics, “Relationships Between Philosophers, 600 B.C.-160 B.C.,” a “delightful depiction,” writes Justin Weinberg at Daily Nous, “of the interrelation of the ideas of ancient philosophers over time.” See Noichl’s site for the three versions of “The Structure of Recent Philosophy” and other philosophy data visualizations.

And at the links below, see how others have used data visualization tools to organize the history of philosophy in different ways.

via Daily Nous

Related Content:

“The Philosopher’s Web,” an Interactive Data Visualization Shows the Web of Influences Connecting Ancient & Modern Philosophers

The Entire Discipline of Philosophy Visualized with Mapping Software: See All of the Complex Networks

The History of Philosophy Visualized in an Interactive Timeline

The History of Philosophy Visualized

Nietzsche Lays Out His Philosophy of Education and a Still-Timely Critique of the Modern University (1872)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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