The First Real Museum of Philosophy Prepares to Launch: See the Museo della Filosofia in Milan

You've almost certainly been to more art museums than you can remember, and more than likely to a few museums of natural history, science, and technology as well. But think hard: have you ever set foot inside a museum of philosophy? Not just an exhibition dealing with philosophers or philosophical concepts, but a single institution dedicated wholly to putting the practice of philosophy itself on display. Your answer can approach a yes only if you spent time in Milan last November, and more specifically at the University of Milan, in whose halls the Museo della Filosofia set up shop and proved its surprisingly untested — and surprisingly successful — concept.

"What we had in mind was not an historically-minded museum collecting relics about the lives and works of important philosophers, but something more dynamic and interactive," writes University of Milan postdoctoral research fellow Anna Ichino at Daily Nous, "where philosophical problems and theories become intuitively accessible through a variety of games, activities, experiments, aesthetic experiences, and other such things."




In the first hall, "we used images like Mary Midgely’s ‘conceptual plumbing’ or Wittgenstein’s ‘fly bottle’ to convey the idea according to which philosophical problems are in important respects conceptual problems, which amount to analyzing concepts that we commonly use in unreflective ways."

In the second hall, visitors to the Museo della Filosofia "could literally play with paradoxes and thought experiments in order to appreciate their heuristic role in philosophical inquiry." The experiences available there ranged from using an oversized deck of cards to "solve" paradoxes, the perhaps inevitable demonstration of the well-known "trolley problem" using a model railroad set, and — most harrowing of all — the chance to "eat chocolates shaped as cat excrement" straight from the litter box. Then came the "School of Athens" game, "in which visitors had to decide whether to back Plato or Aristotle; then they could also take a souvenir picture portraying themselves in the shoes (and face!) of one or the other."

In the third, "programmatic" hall, the museum's organizers "presented the plan for what still needs to be done," a to-do list that includes finding a permanent home. Before it does so, you can have a look at the project's web site as well as its pages on Facebook and Instagram. At the top of the post appears a short video introducing the Museo della Filosofia which, like the rest of the materials, is for the moment in Italian only, but it nevertheless gets across even to non-Italian-speakers a certain idea of the experience a philosophical museum can deliver. Philosophical thinking, after all, occurs prior to language. Or maybe it's inextricably tied up with language; different philosophers have approached the problem differently. And when the Museo della Filosofia opens for good, you'll be able to visit and approach a few philosophical problems yourself. Read more about the museum at Daily Nous.

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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.

 

Artist Ed Ruscha Reads From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a Short Film Celebrating His 1966 Photos of the Sunset Strip

In 1956, the Pop artist Ed Ruscha left Oklahoma City for Los Angeles. “I could see I was just born for the job” of an artist, he would later say, “born to watch paint dry.” The comment encapsulates Ruscha’s ironic use of cliché as a centerpiece of his work. He called himself an “abstract artist… who deals with subject matter.” Much of his subject matter has been commonplace words and phrases—decontextualized and foregrounded in paintings and prints made with careful deliberation, against the trend toward Abstract Expressionism and its gestural freedom.

Another of Ruscha’s subjects comes with somewhat less conceptual baggage. His photographic books capture mid-century America gas stations and the city he has called home for over 50 years. In his 1966 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ruscha “photographed both sides of Sunset Boulevard from the back of a pickup truck,” writes filmmaker Matthew Miller. “He stitched the photos together to make one long book that folded out to 27 feet. That project turned into his larger Streets of Los Angeles series, which spanned decades.”




Miller, inspired by work he did on a 2017 short film called Ed Ruscha: Buildings and Words, decided to bring together two of Ruscha’s longstanding inspirations: the city of L.A. and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which Kerouac supposedly wrote as a continuous 120-foot long scroll—a format, Miller noticed, much like Every Building on the Sunset Strip. (Ruscha made his own artist’s book version of On the Road in 2009). Miller and editor Sean Leonard cut Ruscha’s photographs together in the montage you see above, commissioned by the Getty Museum, while Ruscha himself read selections from the Kerouac classic.

The connection between their style and their use of language feels really strong, but at the end of the day, I simply thought it’d be great to hear Ed Ruscha read On the Road. Something about Ed’s voice just feels right. Something about his work just feels right. It’s like the images, the words, and the forms he makes were always meant to be together.”

Miller describes the painstaking process of selecting the photos and “constructing a mini narrative that evoked Ed’s sensibilities” at Vimeo. The artist’s “perspective seemed to speak to the signage and architecture of the city, while Kerouac’s voice felt like it was pulling in all the lively characters of the street.” It’s easy to see why Ruscha would be so drawn to Kerouac. Both share a fascination with vernacular American speech and iconic American subjects of advertising, the automobile, and the freedoms of the road.

But where Ruscha turns to words for their visual impact, Kerouac relished them for their music. “For a while,” Miller writes of his project, “it felt like the footage wanted one thing and the voiceover wanted another.” But he and Leonard, who also did the sound design, were able to bring image and voice together in a short film that frames both artists as mid-century visionaries who turned the ordinary and seemingly unremarkable into an experience of the ecstatic.

173 works by Ruscha can be viewed on MoMA's website.

via Aeon

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

The Art & Philosophy of Bonsai

We all know what to think of when we hear the term bonsai: dwarf trees. Or so Shinobu Nozaki titled his book, the very first major publication on the subject in English. Dwarf Trees came out in the 1930s, not long after the Japanese art of bonsai started drawing serious international attention. But the art itself goes back as far as the sixth century, when Japanese embassy employees and students of Buddhism returning from sojourns in China brought back all the latest things Chinese, including plants growing in containers. By six or seven centuries later, as scrolls show us today, Japan had taken that horticultural technique and refined it into a practice based on not just miniaturization but proportion, asymmetry, poignancy, and erasure of the artist's traces, one that produces the kind of trees-in-miniature we recognize as artworks, and even masterworks, today.

It hardly needs saying that bonsai trees don't take shape by themselves. As the name, which means "tray planting" (盆栽), suggests, a work of bonsai must begin by planting a specimen in a small container. From then on, it demands daily attention in not just the provision of the proper amounts of water and sunlight but also careful trimming and adjustment with trimmers, hooks, wire, and everything else in the bonsai cultivator's surprisingly large suite of tools.




You can see a Japanese master of the art named Chiako Yamamoto in action in "Bonsai: The Endless Ritual," the BBC Earth Unplugged video at the top of the post. "Shaping nature in this way demands everlasting devotion without the prospect of completion," says its narrator, a point underscored by one bonsai under Yamamoto's care, originally planted by her grandfather over a century ago.

You'll find even older bonsai at the National Bonsai Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington D.C. In the video "Bonsai Will Make You a Better Person," curator Jack Sustic — an American first exposed to bonsai in the military, while stationed in Korea — shows off a Japanese white pine "in training" since the year 1625. That unusual terminology reflects the fact that no work of bonsai even attains a state of completeness. "They're always growing," say Sustic. "They're always changing. It's never a finished artwork." In National Geographic's "American Shokunin" just above, the titular bonsai cultivator (shokunin has a meaning similar to "craftsman" or "artisan"), Japan-trained, Oregon-based Ryan Neil, expands on what bonsai teaches: not just how to artistically grow small trees that resemble big ones, but what it takes to commune with nature and attain mastery.

"A master is somebody who, every single day, tries to pursue perfection at their chosen endeavor," says Neil. "A master doesn't retire. A master doesn't stop. They do it until they're dead." And as a work of bonsai literally outlives its creator, the pursuit continues long after they're dead. The bonsai master must be aware of the aesthetic and philosophical values held by the generations who came before them as well as the generations that will come after. Wabi sabi, as bonsai practitioner Pam Woythal defines it, is "the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death." Shibumi (or in its adjectival form shibui) is, in the words of I Am Bonsai's Jonathan Rodriguez, "the simple subtle details of the subject," manifest for example in "the apparent simple texture that balances simplicity and complexity." Looked at correctly, a bonsai tree — leaves, branches, pot, and all — reminds us of the important elements of life and the important elements of art, and of the fact that those elements aren't as far apart as we assume.

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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.

Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save Available as a Free AudioBook and eBook: Features Narrations by Paul Simon, Kristen Bell & Stephen Fry

In 2009, Princeton philosopher Peter Singer published his practical handbook/manifesto The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty. Bill and Melinda Gates called it “a persuasive and inspiring work that will change the way you think about philanthropy"--a book that "shows us we can make a profound difference in the lives of the world’s poorest.”

Now, on its tenth anniversary, Singer has released an updated version of The Life You Can Save. And he's made it available as a free ebook, and also as a free audiobook featuring narrations by Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Paul Simon and Natalia Vodianova, among others. You can get the downloads here.

Singer's website features a page where you can find the best charities that address global poverty. Each charity has been "rigorously evaluated to help you make the biggest impact per dollar." If you are looking for an efficient approach, you can also make one single donation to support all of the charities vetted and recommended by Singer's organization.

The audio version of The Life You Can Save will be added to our meta collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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An Animated Introduction to Cynicism, the Anti Conformist Philosophy That Originated in Ancient Greece

The word “cynical,” like “stoic,” has come to have a very specific meaning in English, one that bears only a partial resemblance to the ancient Greek philosophy from which it came. “Cynics,” writes psychiatrist Neel Burton, “often come across as contemptuous, irritating, and dispiriting.” They are bitter, unhappy people, defined by thoroughgoing pessimism, summed up in the Oscar Wilde quote about those who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” This characterization is partly the result of ancient slander.

As with many movements of the past, the first Cynics were named by their enemies. Diogenes of Sinope, often credited as the first Cynic (though there were others before him), was “an individual well known for dog-like behavior,” notes Emory University professor Julie Piering at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “As such, the term [Cynic, from kunikos, or “dog-like”] may have begun as an insult referring to Diogenes’ style of life, especially his proclivity to perform all of his activities in public.” His shamelessness and exile from Greek civil society for the crime of counterfeiting made him unwelcome in polite company.




But Diogenes turned his public humiliation into experimental philosophy. Like many who have insults hurled at them regularly, the early Cynics “embraced their title: they barked at those who displeased them, spurned Athenian etiquette, and lived from nature…. What may have originated as a disparaging label became the designation of a philosophical vocation.” Of what did their philosophy consist? In the TED-Ed video above, scripted by Maynooth University professor of Ancient Classics William Desmond, we learn the basics.

Like the Stoics who came after them, Cynics valued simplicity and self-sufficiency. But unlike many a famed Stoic philosopher—such as Nero’s advisor Seneca or the Emperor Marcus Aurelius—Diogenes and his disciples cared nothing for material comforts or political power. The Cynics were vagrant exhibitionists by choice. Diogenes “did not go about his new existence quietly but is said to have teased passersby and mocked the powerful, eating, urinating, and even masturbating in public.”

If the philosopher lived like a dog, this does not mean that he had abandoned all human values, only redefined them. Dogs aren’t bitter, angry pessimists. “They’re happy creatures,” Desmond’s lesson points out, “free from abstractions like wealth and reputation.” The “dog philosophers” were a serious irritation, living examples of a social alternative in which money, fame, and power meant nothing. Their contentment posed a challenge to the established order of things.

Cynics followed Diogenes’ example for almost a thousand years after his death—and even far longer, we might argue, if we consider them forerunners of hobos, hippies, and every intentionally homeless wanderer who decides to rid themselves of property and society and live fully on their own terms.

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

Ram Dass (RIP) Offers Wisdom on Confronting Aging and Dying

After his dismissal from Harvard for researching LSD with Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert left the U.S. for India in 1967. He devoted himself to the teachings of Hindu teacher Neem Karoli Baba and returned to the States a permanently changed man, with a new name and a message he first spread via the collaboratively-edited and illustrated 1971 classic Be Here Now.

In the “philosophically misty, stubbornly resonant Buddhist-Hindu-Christian mash-up,” writes David Marchese at The New York Times, Ram Dass “extolled the now-commonplace, then-novel (to Western hippies, at least) idea that paying deep attention to the present moment—that is, mindfulness—is the best path to a meaningful life.” We’ve grown so used to hearing this by now that we’ve likely become a little numb to it, even if we’ve bought into the premise and the practice of meditation.




Ram Dass discovered that mindful awareness was not part of any self-improvement project but a way of being ordinary and abandoning excess self-concern. “The more your awareness is expanded, the more it becomes just a natural part of your life, like eating or sleeping or going to the toilet” he says in the excerpt above from a talk he gave on “Conscious Aging” in 1992. “If you’re full of ego, if you’re full of yourself, you’re doing it out of righteousness to prove you’re a good person.”

To really open ourselves up to reality, we must be willing to put desire aside and become “irrelevant.” That’s a tough ask in a culture that values few things more highly than fame, youth, and beauty and fears nothing more than aging, loss, and death. Our culture “denigrates non-youth,” Ram Dass wrote in 2017, and thus stigmatizes and ignores a natural process everyone must all endure if they live long enough.

[W]hat I realized many years ago was I went into training to be a kind of elder, or social philosopher, or find a role that would be comfortable as I became irrelevant in the youth market. Now I’ve seen in interviewing old people that the minute you cling to something that was a moment ago, you suffer. You suffer when you have your face lifted to be who you wish you were then, for a little longer, because you know it’s temporary.

The minute you pit yourself against nature, the minute you pit yourself with your mind against change, you are asking for suffering.

Older adults are projected to outnumber children in the next decade or so, with a healthcare system designed to extract maximum profit for the minimal amount of care. The denial of aging and death creates “a very cruel culture,” Ram Dass writes, “and the bizarre situation is that as the demographic changes, and the baby boomers come along and get old, what you have is an aging society and a youth mythology”—a recipe for mass suffering if there ever was one.

We can and should, Ram Dass believed, advocate for better social policy. But to change our collective approach to aging and death, we must also, individually, confront our own fears of mortality, no matter how old we are at the moment. The spiritual teacher and writer, who passed away yesterday at age 88, confronted death for decades and helped students do the same with books like 2001’s Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying and his series of talks on “Conscious Aging,” which you can hear in full further up.

“Recorded at the Conscious Aging conference sponsored by the Omega Institute in 1992,” notes the Ram Dass Love Serve Remember Foundation, the conference “was the first of its kind on aging. Ram Dass had just turned sixty.” He begins his first talk with a joke about purchasing his first senior citizen ticket and says he felt like a teenager until he hit fifty. But joking aside, he learned early that really living in the present means facing aging and death in all its forms.

Ram Dass met aging with wisdom, humor, and compassion, as you can see in the recent video above. As we remember his life, we can also turn to decades of his teaching to learn how to become kinder to ourselves and others (a distinction without a real difference, he argued), as we all face the inevitable together.

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

The Zen of Bill Murray: I Want to Be “Really Here, Really in It, Really Alive in the Moment”

We all know, on the deepest level, what we have the potential to achieve; once in a great while, we even catch glimpses of just what we could do if only we put our minds to it. But what, if anything, does it mean to "put our minds to it"? In breaking down that cliché, we might look to the example of Bill Murray, an actor for whom breaking down clichés has become a method of not just working but living. In the 2015 Charlie Rose clip above, Murray tells of receiving a late-night phone call from a friend's drunken sister. "You have no idea how much you could do, Bill, if you could just — you can do so much," the woman kept insisting. But to the still more or less asleep Murray, her voice sounded like that of "a visionary speaking to you in the night and coming to you in your dream."

Through her inebriation, this woman spoke directly to a persistent desire of Murray's, one he describes when Rose asks him "what it is that you want that you don't have." Murray replies that he'd "like to be more consistently here," that he'd like to "see how long I can last as being really here — you know, really in it, really alive in the moment." He'd like to see what he could do if he could stay off human auto-pilot, if he "were able to not get distracted, to not change channels in my mind and body, so I would just, you know, be my own channel." He grounds this potentially spiritual-sounding idea in physical terms: "It is all contained in your body, everything you've got: your mind, your spirit, your soul, your emotions, it is all contained in your body. All the prospects, all the chances you ever have."




Murray had spoken in even more detail of the body's importance at the previous year's Toronto International Film Festival. "How much do you weigh?" he asked his audience there, leading them into an impromptu guided meditation. "Try to feel that weight in your seat right now, in your bottom right now." If you can "feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now." The idea is to be here now, to borrow the words with which countercultural icon Ram Dass titled his most popular book. But Murray approached it by reading something quite different: the writings of Greco-Armenian Sufi mystic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, whose contribution to Murray's comedic persona we've previously featured here on Open Culture.

Gurdjieff believed that most of us live out our lives in a hypnosis-like state of "waking sleep," never touching the state of higher consciousness that might allow us to more clearly perceive reality and more fully realize our potential. In recent years, Murray has taken on something like this role himself, having "long bypassed mere celebrity status to become something close to a spiritual symbol, a guru of zen, and his frequent appearances among the masses (in a karaoke bar! In a couple’s engagement photo!) are reported on the internet with the excitement of sightings of the messiah." So writes the Guardian's Hadley Freeman in a Murray profile from 2019, which quotes the actor-comedian-trickster-Ghostbuster-bodhisattva returning to his wish to attain an ever-greater state of presence. "If there’s life happening and you run from it, you’re not doing the world a favor," he says. "You have to engage." And if you do, you may discover possibilities you'd never even suspected before.

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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.

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