Moral Philosophy on TV? Pretty Much Pop #32 Judges The Good Place

Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt discuss Michael Schur's NBC TV show. Is it good? (Yes, or we wouldn't be covering it?) Is it actually a sit-com? Does it effectively teach philosophy? What did having actual philosophers on the staff (after season one) contribute, and was that enough? We talk TV finales, the dramatic impact of the show's convoluted structure, the puzzle of heaven being death, and more.

Here are a few articles to get you warmed up:

If you like the show, you should also check out The Official Good Place Podcast, especially the interviews with Schur himself. There are also supplementary educational videos with professor Todd May like this one on existentialism.

A few clips: What's the deal with the "Jeremy Bearimy" time measurement? The Trolley Problem, meeting Hypatia, finale clip with Arvo Part's "Spiegel Im Spiegel."

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Bertrand Russell’s Prison Letters Are Now Digitized & Put Online (1918 – 1961)

Boethius, Henry David Thoreau, Antonio Gramsci, Martin Luther King, Jr…. It’s possible, if one tried, to draw other comparisons between these disparate figures, but readers familiar with the work of all four will immediately recognize their most obvious literary commonality: all wrote some of their most impassioned and persuasive work while unjustly confined to a cell.

In the case of Bertrand Russell, however, perhaps one of the most famous figures in 20th century philosophy and intellectual life more generally, periods of incarceration in Brixton prison in 1918 and, forty-three years later, in 1961, play a minimal role in the larger drama of his writing life, despite the fact that he did a good deal of writing, including some significant philosophical work, behind bars.




Even scholars well-read in Russell’s work may have little knowledge of his prison writing, and for good reason: most of it has been inaccessible. “Now, for the first time,” writes Erica Balch at McMaster University’s Brighter World blog, “Russell’s prison letters—part of McMaster’s Bertrand Russell Archives—are being made available online through a new digitization project developed by the Bertrand Russell Research Centre. Complete with detailed annotations and fully searchable text, the project is providing scholars from around the world with access to these rarely seen materials.”

The contents of the letters reveal other reasons that Russell’s prison writing isn’t better known. He did plenty of impassioned and persuasive writing for the public outside of a prison cell—publishing fiery books, essays, and lectures against war and propaganda and in defense of free thought throughout his life. Behind bars, however, Russell’s writing turned almost solely professional and personal, in letters addressed primarily to “his then lover Lady Constance Malleson (known as ‘Colette’) and his former lover, aristocrat and socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell.”

The 105 letters “reveal the private thoughts of one of the 20th century’s most public figures and provide an interesting window on Russell’s inner life,” says Andrew Bone, Senior Research Associate at McMaster’s Bertrand Russell Research Centre.  Most of the letters “were written in secret,” Balch notes, “and smuggled out of Brixton by Russell’s friends, concealed between the uncut pages of books.” Russell was only allowed one letter per week; officially sanctioned correspondence is written on prison stationary and bears the Brixton governor’s initials.

A lifelong pacifist, Russell was first jailed for six months in 1918 for a speech opposing U.S. entry into World War I. “I found prison in many ways quite agreeable,” he later wrote in his autobiography. “I had no engagements, no difficult decisions to make, no fear of callers, no interruptions to my work. I read enormously; I wrote a book, ‘Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy’... and began the work for ‘Analysis of Mind,’” a project that never reached fruition. In 1961, at age 89, he was jailed for seven days for participating in a London anti-nuclear demonstration.

During his first stay as a prisoner of Brixton’s “first division,” Russell was “allowed to furnish his cell, wear civilian clothes, purchase catered food, and most importantly, be exempted from prison work while he pursued his profession as an author," as the Bertrand Russell Research Centre points out. It’s little wonder he looked forward to the experience as a “holiday from responsibility,” he wrote in a letter to his brother, Frank, four days after he began his sentence.

Russell may not have suffered—or acquired a heightened sense of political urgency—while behind bars (at one point he was heard laughing out loud and had to be reminded by the warden that “prison is a place of punishment”). But his prison letters offer significant insight into not only the deeply emotional relationships he had with Malleson and Morrell, but also his relationship with other members of the famous Bloomsbury group and “literary celebrities such as D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot,” writes Balch, “many of whom are referenced in the letters.”

The 104 letters from 1918, including Russell’s correspondence with his brother, his publisher, The Nation magazine and others, are all available in original scans with transcriptions and annotations at the McMaster University Bertrand Russell Research Centre site. The final letter, number 105, the sole piece of correspondence from Russell’s weeklong stay in Brixton in 1961, is addressed to his wife Edith.

My Darling,

The lawyer’s nice young man brought me cheering news of you and told me I could write to you, which I had not known. Every one here treats me kindly and the only thing I mind is being away from you. At all odd minutes I have the illusion that you are there, and forget that if I sneeze it won’t disturb you. I am enjoying Madame de Staël immensely, having at last got round to reading her. At odd moments I argue theology with the chaplain and medicine with the Doctor, and so the time passes easily. But separation from you is quite horrid, Dearest Love, it will be heavenly when we are together again. Take care of yourself, Beloved.

B.

As in most of the earlier letters, Russell avoids politics and keeps things personal. But as in nearly all of his writing, the prose is lively, evocative, and poignant, revealing much about the personality behind it. While these letters may never achieve the status of great literature, by virtue of their private nature and their minor role in Russell’s major canon, that does not mean they aren’t a joy to read, for students of Bertrand Russell and anyone else who appreciates the workings of a brilliant philosophical and ethical mind. Enter the Brixton Letter archive here.

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

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

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