An Animated Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Life & Thought

There’s no shame if you’ve never known how to pronounce Friedrich Nietzsche’s name correctly. Even less if you never remember how to spell it. If these happen to be the case, you may be less than familiar with his philosophy. Let Alain de Botton’s animated School of Life video briefly introduce you, and you’ll never forget how to say it: “Knee Cha.” (As for remembering the spelling, you’re on your own.) You’ll also get a short biography of the disgruntled, dyspeptic German philosopher, who left a promising academic career at the University of Basel in his mid-20s and embarked to the Swiss Alps to write his violently original books in solitude before succumbing to a mental breakdown at 44 when he saw a cart driver beating a horse.

Nietzsche died after remaining almost entirely silent for 11 years. In these years and after his death, thanks to the machinations of his sister Elizabeth, his thought was twisted into a hateful caricature. He has since been rehabilitated from associations with the Nazis, but he still calls up fear and loathing for many people because of his relentless critiques of Christianity and reputation for staring too long into abysses. Maybe we can’t help but hear fascistic overtones in his concept of the ubermensch, and his ideas about slave morality can make for uncomfortable reading. Those steeped in Nietzsche’s thought may not feel that de Botton’s commentary gives these ideas their proper critical due.

Likewise, Nietzsche himself is treated as something of an ubermensch, an approach that pulls him out of his social world. Important figures who had a tremendous impact on his personal and intellectual life—like Arthur Schopenhauer, Richard and Cosima Wagner, Lou Salomé, and Nietzsche’s sister—don’t even receive a mention. But this is a lot to ask from a six-minute summary. De Botton hits some of philosophical highlights and explains some misconceptions. Yes, Nietzsche held no brief for Christianity at all, but this was because it caused tremendous suffering, he thought, by making people morally stunted and bitterly resentful.

Instead, he argued, we should embrace our desires, and use so-called sinful passions like envy to leverage our ambitions. Nietzsche is not a seducer, corrupting the youth with promises of greatness. You may very well fail, he admitted, and fail miserably. But to deny yourself is to never become who you are. Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich has described this aspect of the philosopher’s thought as the ethics of the supportive friend. She quotes David B. Allison, who writes that Nietzsche’s advice comes to us “like a friend who seems to share your every concern—and your aversions and suspicions as well. Like a true friend, he rarely tells you what you should do.”

Except that he often does. Babich also writes about Nietzsche as educator, and indeed he considered education one of the highest human goods, too precious to be squandered on those who do not appreciate it. His philosophy of education is consistent with his views on culture. Since God is Dead, we must replace scripture and liturgy with art, literature, and music. So far, so many a young Nietzsche enthusiast, pursuing their own form of Nietzschean education, will be on board with the philosopher’s program.

But as de Botton also explains, Nietzsche, who turned Dionysus into a philosophical ideal, might have issued one prescription too many for the average college student: no drinking. If that’s too much to stomach, we should at least take seriously that stuff about staring into abysses. Nietzsche meant it as a warning. Instead, writes Peter Prevos at The Horizon of Reason, “we should go beyond staring and bravely leap into the boundless chasm and practice philosophical base jumping.” No matter how much Nietzsche you read, he’s never going to tell you that means. We only become who we are, he suggests, when we figure it on our own.

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

An Animated Introduction to the Famous Thought Experiment, the “Trolley Problem,” Narrated by Harry Shearer

You don't have to get too deep into the study of ethics before you run across the trolley problem. It comes up so readily that it hardly needs an introduction: a runaway train is on course to collide with and kill five people working on the tracks, but you can pull a lever that will switch it to another section of track on which stands only one person. Do you pull it? According to a purely utilitarian interpretation, you should, since one life lost surely beats five lives lost. But faced with the decision, real individuals tend to struggle: not pulling the lever feels like letting five people die, but pulling it feels like murdering one.

What if you could stop the train by pushing one especially large individual off a bridge into the train's path, stopping it but killing him? Few say, or at least admit, that they would do it. But why not? The Harry Shearer-narrated animation above, a part of BBC Radio 4 and The Open University's series on the history of ideas, considers what our responses reveal about how we think ethically.

"What the trolley problem examines is whether moral decisions are simply about outcomes, or about the manner in which you achieve them," says Shearer. "Lots of people say they would switch the points, but they wouldn't push the man off the bridge. Are they simply inconsistent... or are they on to something?

The TED-Ed video just above, written by educator Eleanor Nelsen, gets deeper into what they might be on to. "The dilemma in its many variations reveals that what we think is right or wrong depends on factors other than a logical weighing of the pros and cons," says Nelsen. "For example, men are more likely than women to say it's okay to push the man over the bridge. So are people who watch a comedy clip before doing the thought experiment. And in one virtual reality study, people were more willing to sacrifice men than women." The study of "Trolleyology," a subject since Philippa Foot first articulated the problem in 1967, now finds "researchers who study autonomous systems" collaborating with philosophers "to address the complex problem of programming ethics into machines." Alternatively, of course, they could just put the question to the nearest two-year-old.

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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.

Alan Watts Presents a 15-Minute Guided Meditation: A Time-Tested Way to Stop Thinking About Thinking

The concept of emptinessshūnyatā—in Mahayana Buddhism is perhaps a subject best avoided in casual conversation. It so vexes everyone not least because of issues of translation: "emptiness," many scholars think, hardly suffices as a substitute. In English it has a more distinctly nihilist flavor than was intended. Yet emptiness is so indispensable that it can hardly go unmentioned when the practice and purpose of meditation come up in Buddhist thought.

Leave it to Zen to put things in such succinct and down-to-earth ways: the practice of meditation is to develop “’no mind,’” says Suzuki Roshi. It is to have “no gaining idea.” The reason is to have no reason. But from the same point of view, there is a point: “the point we should make clear in our practice,” the Zen master tells us: we should "put more emphasis on big mind rather than small mind.”

If you need more clarification, you might turn to another Zen popularizer who also began to draw audiences in California in the 50s: Alan Watts. Watts came to San Francisco not with a lifetime of monastic training in Japan, but through his training as an academic, Episcopal priest, and Zen enthusiast in Britain. He is wordier, less poetic, and more essayistic in his delivery, but in discussing the purpose of meditation, you will find him saying the very same things as the Zen masters:

Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment. And therefore, if you meditate for an ulterior motive — that is to say, to improve your mind, to improve your character, to be more efficient in life — you've got your eye on the future and you are not meditating!

As for Suzuki's “big mind," Watts has his own version: “The art of meditation is a way of getting into touch with reality… our basic inseparability from the whole universe.” These are not necessarily synonyms for “emptiness,” but the idea of having no idea maybe comes close to summarizing the concept. “Not knowing,” as the koan says, “is most intimate.”

Maybe it’s hair-splitting and belabors the comparison, but Suzuki Roshi did not talk about meditation as a way to stop all thinking. This is futile, he would argue. Watts seems to suggest otherwise when he says that “we become interiorally silent and cease from the interminable chatter that goes on inside our skulls. Because you see, most of us think compulsively all the time." Most honest people will tell you they think compulsively during meditation as well. But in his guided meditation above, Watts acknowledges just this fact.

Indeed, his matter-of-fact way of recognizing the ever-presence of thought is what makes the instructions he gives so useful, even if they are also, ultimately, pointless. Hear the original fifteen minute guided meditation at the top of the post and an edit, with some, maybe distracting, background music, just above. To let thinking recede into the background, we must engage our other senses, letting every sound and sensation come and go and the autonomous nervous system take over.

How to let go of thinking about thinking? Let Watts guide you in an exercise and see what happens. Then listen to Suzuki Roshi describe the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness. As far as meditation, or "zazen practice," goes, he says, our zazen practice is based on... the teaching of shūnyatā or emptiness," which is not an idea but an experience of "letting go of fixed ideas," writes another Zen master who brought his practice to the U.S., "in order to go beyond them."

via Big Think

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

97-Year-Old Philosopher Ponders the Meaning of Life: “What Is the Point of It All?”

If you’ve sat by the bedside of a dying friend or relative, or recovered from a terminal illness yourself, you may know too well: the concerns of yesterday—career anxieties, political high stakes, personal grudges—can slip away into the rear view, becoming smaller and more meaningless as hours pass into final days. What takes their place? Maybe a savoring of the moment, maybe regrets over moments not savored, maybe a growing acknowledgment that gratitude matters more than being right. Maybe a willingness to let go of prior ideas—not to adopt new ones, but to open to the questions again.

Sometimes, this experience is bewildering and frightening, especially when coupled with the pains of illness and old age. Whatever insights one might have at the threshold of death, they cannot easily overcome “lifelong habits,” says Herbert Fingarette in the candid short film Being 97, a documentary made in the last months of the contrarian American philosopher’s life. By the time of his death,” notes Aeon, “Fingarette (1921-2018) had lived what most would consider a full and meaningful life. His marriage to his wife, Leslie, was long and happy. His career as a professor of philosophy at the University of California was both accomplished and controversial.”

By this time, his wife of seventy years had been gone for seven. And at 97, physically frail and his career long over, Fingarette was coming to terms with “loneliness and absence” as well as with his need for help from other people to do simple tasks. After 42 years of teaching—and writing on subjects like self-deception, Confucianism, ethical responsibility, and addiction—he was also grappling with the fact he had been wrong about one particularly pressing matter, at least.

Fingarette became infamous when, without undertaking any scientific research himself, he claimed in the 1988 book Heavy Drinking that alcoholism was a problem of self control, not a disease. But he does not speak of the political furor in this minor controversy. Eleven years later, he took on an even heavier subject in Death: Philosophical Soundings. “What I said was in a nutshell,” he recalls, “is there’s no reason to be afraid or concerned or anything about death because when you die, there’s nothing. You’re not going to suffer, you’re not going to be unhappy… you’re not going to be…. It’s not rational to be afraid of death.”

He admits, “I now think that is not a good statement, because I think it’s important to figure out why it is then that people are afraid of death. Why am I concerned about it?” His best thinking aside, “my sense of realism tells me, well, no good reason or not, it is something that haunts me. I walk around the house and I ask myself, ‘What is the point of it all? There must be something I’m missing in this argument.’” He asks, he says, knowing “that there isn’t any good answer." But that doesn’t stop him from looking for one. We see Fingarette’s lifelong habits as a thinker push him forward in pursuit of what he calls a “foolish question,” although he intuits that “the answer might be… the silent answer.”

It’s a painful existential realization for a man so devoted to logical argument and pronouncements of certainty. This film of Fingarette in his last months is both a personally moving portrait and a drama in miniature of a universal human dilemma: why is it so hard to accept the inevitable? Why do we have minds that struggle against it? The multitude of possible answers may be far less meaningful than the experience of the question itself, painful and transcendent as it is, whether we are grieving the loss of others, facing our own mortality, or, as in Fingarette's case, both at once.

Being 97 will be added to our list of Free Online Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

via Aeon

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


A Brief Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Linguistic Theory, Narrated by The X-Files‘ Gillian Anderson

How is it that children just entering toddlerhood pick up the structure of their respective languages with ease? They are not formally taught to use speech; they have limited cognitive abilities and a “poverty of stimulus,” given their highly circumscribed environments. And yet, they learn the function and order of subjects, verbs, and objects, and learn to recognize improper usage. Children might make routine mistakes, but they understand and can be understood from a very early age, and for the most part without very much difficulty. How?

These are the questions that confronted Noam Chomsky in the early years of his career in linguistics. His answers produced a theory of Universal Grammar in the 1960s, and for decades, it has been the reigning theory in the field to beat, initiating what is often referred to as the “Chomskyan Era,” a phrase the man himself dislikes but which nonetheless sums up the kinds of issues that have been at stake in linguistics for over fifty years.

Questions about language acquisition have always been the subject of intense philosophical speculation. They were folded into general theories of epistemology, like Plato’s theory of forms or John Locke’s so-called “blank slate” hypothesis. Variations on these positions surface in different forms throughout Western intellectual history. Descartes picks up Plato’s dualism, arguing that humans speak and animals don’t because of the existence of an immortal “rational soul.” Behaviorist B.F. Skinner suggests that operant conditioning writes language onto a totally impressionable mind. (“Give me a child,” said Skinner, “and I will shape him into anything.”)

Chomsky “gave a twist” to this age-old debate over the existence of innate ideas, as Gillian Anderson tells us in the animated video above from BBC 4’s History of Ideas series. Chomsky’s theory is biolinguistic: it situates language acquisition in the structures of the brain. Not being himself a neurobiologist, he talks of those theoretical structures, responsible for reproducing accurate syntax, as a metaphorical “language acquisition device” (LAD), a hardwired faculty that separates the human brain from that of a dog or cat.

Chomsky’s theory has little to do with the content of language, but rather with its structure, which he says is universally encoded in our neural architecture. Children, he writes, “develop language because they’re pre-programmed to do this.” Syntax is prior to and independent of specific meaning, a point he demonstrated with the poetic sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Every English speaker can recognize the sentence as grammatical, even very small children, though it refers to no real objects and would never occur in conversation.

Conversely, we recognize “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless” as ungrammatical, though it means no more nor less than the first sentence. The regional variations on word order only underline his point since, in every case, children quickly understand how to use the version they’re presented with at roughly the same developmental age and in the same way. The existence of a theoretical Language Acquisition Device solves the chicken-egg problem of how children with no understanding of and only a very limited exposure to language, can learn to speak just by listening to language.

Chomsky’s theory was revolutionary in large part because it was testable, and researchers at the professor’s longtime employer, MIT, recently published evidence of a “language universal” they discovered in a comparative study of 37 languages. It's compelling research that just might anticipate the discovery of a physical Language Acquisition Device, or its neurobiological equivalent, in every human brain.

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

Michel Foucault Offers a Clear, Compelling Introduction to His Philosophical Project (1966)

Theorist Michel Foucault first “rose to prominence,” notes Aeon, “as existentialism fell out of favor among French intellectuals.” His first major work, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, proposed a new methodology based on the “disappearance of Man” as a metaphysical category. The ahistorical assumptions that had plagued philosophy made us too comfortable, he thought, with historical systems that imprisoned us. “I would like to consider our own culture,” he says in the 1966 interview with Pierre Dumayet above, “to be something as foreign to us.”

The kind of estrangement Foucault induced in his ethnologies, genealogies, and histories of Western modernity opened a space for critiques of knowledge itself as a “foreign phenomenon,” he says. Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Thingsand Discipline and Punish examine systems—the asylum, the medical profession, the sciences, and prisons—and allow us to see how ideologies are produced by instrumental uses of language and technology.

Foucault shifted his focus in the last period of his career, after a 1975 LSD trip and subsequent experiences in Berkeley changed his outlook. Yet he continued, in his monumental, unfinished, multi-volume History of Sexuality to demonstrate how modes of philosophical and scientific discourse gave rise to cultural phenomena we take for granted as natural states. Foucault was a critic of the way the psychiatry and medicine pathologized human behavior and created systems of exclusion and correction. In his final work, he examined the classical history of ethical discipline and self-improvement.

We might recognize the remnants of this history in our contemporary culture when he writes, in The History of Sexuality, Volume 3, that “improvement, the perfection of the soul that one seeks in philosophy…. Increasingly assumes a medical coloration.” Foucault described the ways in which pleasure and desire were highly circumscribed by utilitarian systems of control and self-control. It’s hard to say how much of this early interview the later Foucault would have endorsed, but it’s yet another example of how lucid and perceptive he was as a thinker, despite an undeserved reputation for difficulty and obscurity.

He admits, however, the inherent difficulty of his project: the self-reflective critique of a modern European intellectual, through the very categories of thought that make up the European intellectual tradition. But “after all,” he says, “how can we know ourselves if not with our own knowledge?” The endeavor requires a “complete twisting of our reason on itself.” Few thinkers have been able to make such moves with as much clarity and scholarly rigor as Foucault.

via Aeon

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

Monty Python’s Best Philosophy Sketches: “The Philosophers’ Football Match,” “Philosopher’s Drinking Song” & More

From dead parrots to The Meaning of Life, Monty Python covered a lot of territory. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, the Pythons made a habit of weaving arcane intellectual references into the silliest of sketches. A classic example is "Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion Visit Jean-Paul Sartre," (above) from episode 27 of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

The sketch features writing partners John Cleese as Mrs. Premise and Graham Chapman as Mrs. Conclusion, gabbing away in a launderette about how best to put down a budgie. Mrs. Premise suggests flushing it down the loo. "Ooh! No!" protests Mrs. Conclusion. "You shouldn't do that. No that's dangerous. Yes, they breed in the sewers, and eventually you get evil-smelling flocks of huge soiled budgies flying out of people's lavatories infringing their personal freedom."

From there the conversation veers straight into Jean-Paul Sartre's The Roads to Freedom. It's a classic sketch--vintage Python--and you can read a transcript here while watching it above.

Another classic is the "Philosopher's Drinking Song," shown above in a scene from Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. The song was written and sung by Eric Idle. In the sketch, members of the philosophy department at the "University of Woolloomooloo” lead the audience in singing, "Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable; Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar who could think you under the table..."

And one of our favorites: "The Philosophers' Football Match" (above), a filmed sequence from Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, pitting the Ancient Greeks against the Germans, with Confucius as referee. The sketch was originally broadcast in 1972 in a two-part West German television special, Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus.

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in November 2011.

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