Take Free Philosophy Courses from The Institute of Art and Ideas: From “The Meaning of Life” to “Heidegger Meets Van Gogh”

Back in 2014, we told you about how The Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI) launched IAI Academy -- an online educational platform that features free courses from world-leading scholars "on the ideas that matter." They have since put online a number of philosophy courses, many striving to address questions that affect our lives today. We've listed a number of them below, and added them to our list of 150+ Free Online Philosophy courses. For a complete list of IAI Academy courses, visit this page.

  • Heidegger Meets Van Gogh: Art, Freedom and Technology - Web video - Simon Glendinning, London School of Economics
  • Dark Matter of the Mind - Web video - Daniel Everett, Bentley University
  • Fear and Trembling in the 21st Century - Web video - Clare Carlisle, King’s College London
  • Knowledge and Rationality - Web Video - Corine Besson, University of Sussex
  • Life, Meaning and Morality - Web video - Christopher Hamilton, King’s College, London
  • Minds, Morality and Agency - Web video - Mark Rowlands, University of Miami
  • On Romantic Love - Web video - Berit Brogaard, University of Miami
  • The Human Compass - Web video - Janne Teller
  • The Meaning of Life - Web video - Steve Fuller, University of Warwick
  • The Universe As We Find It - Web video - John Heil, Washington University in St Louis
  • Unveiling Reality - Web video - Bryan Roberts, London School of Economics
  • Why the World Does Not Exist - Web video - Markus Gabriel, Freiburg Institute of Advanced Study.

Note: The courses are all free. However, to take a course you will need to create a user account.

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A Short, Animated Introduction to Emil Cioran, the “Philosopher of Despair”

It is admittedly a gross oversimplification, but if asked to summarize a critical difference between analytical Anglo-American philosophers and so-called “Continentals," one might broadly say that the former approach philosophy as thinking, the latter as writing. Contrast, for example, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Bertrand Russell—none of whom are especially known as prose stylists—with Michel de Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or Albert Camus. While the Englishmen struck out into heady intellectual waters indeed, the Europeans brought the full weight of their personalities to bear on their investigations. They invented personae, wrote literary aphorisms, and often wrote fiction, drama, and dialogue in addition to philosophy.

Surely there are many exceptions to this scheme, but on the whole, Continental thinkers have been looser with the laws of logic and more intimate with the rules of rhetoric, as well as with their own emotional lives. But perhaps one of the greatest examples of such a philosophical writer is someone most of us have never heard of. After watching this short School of Life video introduction on Romanian-French philosopher Emil Cioran, we may be persuaded to get to know his work. Cioran, says Alain de Botton above, “is very much worthy of inclusion in the line of the greatest French and European moral philosophers and writers of maxims stretching back to Montaigne, Chamfort, Pascal, and La Rochefoucauld.”

Costica Bradatan describes Cioran as a “20th-century Nietzsche, only darker and with a better sense of humor.” Called a “philosopher of despair” by the New York Times upon his death in 1995, Cioran’s “hair-shirted world view resonated in the titles” of books like On the Heights of Despair, Syllogisms of Bitterness, and The Trouble with Being Born. Though his deeply pessimistic outlook was consistent throughout his career, he was not a systematic thinker. “Cioran often contradicts himself,” writes Bradatan, “but that’s the least of his worries. With him, self-contradiction is not even a weakness, but the sign a mind is alive.”

Like Nietzsche, Cioran possessed a “brooding, romantic, fatalistic temperament” combined with an obsession with religious themes, inherited from his father, a Greek Orthodox priest. The two also share a penchant for pithy aphorisms both shocking and darkly funny in their brutal candor. De Botton quotes one example: “It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.” For Cioran, Bradatan remarks, writing philosophy was “not about being consistent, nor about persuasion or keeping a readership entertained.” It was a personal act of survival. “You write not to produce some body of text, but to act upon yourself; to bring yourself together after a personal disaster or to pull yourself out of a bad depression.”

Cioran put it this way: “Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” In his thematic obsessions, literary elegance, and personal investment in his work, Cioran resembles a number of writers we admire because philosophy for them was not a matter of rational abstraction; it was an active engagement with the most personal, yet universal, questions of life and death.

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

Slavoj Žižek Names His 5 Favorite Films

Anyone who has read the prose of philosopher-provocateur Slavoj Žižek, a potent mixture of the academic and the psychedelic, has to wonder what material has influenced his way of thinking. Those who have seen his film-analyzing documentaries The Pervert's Guide to Cinema and The Pervert's Guide to Ideology might come to suspect that he's watched even more than he's read, and the interview clip above gives us a sense of which movies have done the most to shape his internal universe. Asked to name his five favorite films, he improvises the following list:

  • Melancholia (Lars von Trier), "because it's the end of the world, and I'm a pessimist. I think it's good if the world ends"
  • The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949), "ultracapitalist propaganda, but it's so ridiculous that I cannot but love it"
  • A Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), "standard but I like it." It's free to watch online.
  • Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), because "Vertigo is still too romantic" and "after Psycho, everything goes down"
  • To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942), "madness, you cannot do a better comedy"

You can watch a part of Žižek's breakdown of Psycho, which he describes as "the perfect film for me," in the Pervert's Guide to Cinema clip just above. He views the house of Norman Bates, the titular psycho, as a reproduction of "the three levels of human subjectivity. The ground floor is ego: Norman behaves there as a normal son, whatever remains of his normal ego taking over. Up there it's the superego — maternal superego, because the dead mother is basically a figure of superego. Down in the cellar, it's the id, the reservoir of these illicit drives." Ultimately, "it's as if he is transposing her in his own mind as a psychic agency from superego to id." But given that Žižek's interpretive powers extend to the hermenutics of toilets and well beyond, he could probably see just about anything as a Freudian nightmare.

You can watch another of Žižek's five favorite films, Dziga Vertov's A Man with a Movie Camera, which we featured here on Open Culture a few years ago, just above. Whether or not you can tune into the right intellectual wavelength to enjoy Žižek's own work, the man can certainly put together a stimulating viewing list.

For more of his recommendations — and his distinctive justifications for those recommendations — have a look at his picks from the Criterion Collection and his explanation of the greatness of Andrei Tarkovsky. If university superstardom one day stops working out for him, he may well have a bright future as a revival-theater programmer.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Animated Alan Watts Waxes Philosophical About Time in The Fine Art of Goofing Off, the 1970s “Sesame Street for Grown-Ups”

Time is a measure of energy, a measure of motion. And we have agreed internationally on the speed of the clock. And I want you to think about clocks and watches for a moment. We are of course slaves to them. And you will notice that your watch is a circle, and that it is calibrated, and that each minute, or second, is marked by a hairline which is made as narrow as possible, as yet to be consistent with being visible. 

Alan Watts

However true, that’s a particularly stress-inducing observation from one who was known for his Zen teachings…

The pressure is ameliorated somewhat by Bob McClay's trippy time-based animation, above, narrated by Watts. Putting Mickey Mouse on the face of Big Ben must’ve gone over well with the countercultural youth who eagerly embraced Watts’ Eastern philosophy. And the tangible evidence of real live magic markers will prove a tonic to those who came of age before animation's digital revolution.

The short originally aired as part of the early 70’s series, The Fine Art of Goofing Off, described by one of its creators, the humorist and sound artist, Henry Jacobs, as “Sesame Street for grown-ups.”

Time preoccupied both men.

One of Jacobs’ fake commercials on The Fine Art of Goofing Off involved a pitchman exhorting viewers to stop wasting time at idle pastimes: Log a few extra golden hours at the old grindstone.

A koan-like skit featured a gramophone through which a disembodied voice endlessly asks a stuffed dog, “Can you hear me?” (Jacobs named that as a personal favorite.)

Watts was less punchline-oriented than his friend and eventual in-law, who maintained an archival collection of Watts’ lectures until his own death:

And when we think of a moment of time, when we think what we mean by the word "now”; we think of the shortest possible instant that is here and gone, because that corresponds with the hairline on the watch. And as a result of this fabulous idea, we are a people who feel that we don’t have any present, because the present is instantly vanishing - it goes so quickly. It is always becoming past. And we have the sensation, therefore, of our lives as something that is constantly flowing away from us. We are constantly losing time. And so we have a sense of urgency. Time is not to be wasted. Time is money. And so, because of the tyranny of this thing, we feel that we have a past, and we know who we are in terms of our past. Nobody can ever tell you who they are, they can only tell you who they were. 

Watch a complete episode of The Fine Art of Goofing Off here. Your time will be well spent.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Love Letters of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger

The notorious four-year affair between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger has occasioned many a bitter academic debate, for reasons with which you may already be familiar. If not, Alan Ryan sums it up succinctly in a 1996 New York Review of Books essay:

She was a Jew who fled Germany in August 1933, a few months after Hitler’s assumption of power. He was elected Rector of the University of Freiburg in the spring of 1933, and in a notorious inaugural address hailed the presence of the brown-shirted storm-troopers in his audience, claimed that Hitler would restore the German people to spiritual health, and ended by giving the familiar stiff-armed Nazi salute to cries of “Sieg Heil.” The thought that these two were ever soulmates is hard to swallow.

Arendt went on to write The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she used the phrase “banality of evil” for the Nazi functionary on trial at Nuremberg. Heidegger refused to discuss his collaboration publicly and “remained silent about the extermination of the Jews, about the terrorism of Hitler’s regime.” But as we’ve learned from his recently published journals, the so-called Black Notebooks, he was privately a “convinced Nazi,” as Peter Gordon observes, who “did not awaken from his philosophical-political fantasies. They only grew more extreme.”

But indeed, Arendt and Heidegger were in love, during an affair that began when she was an 18-year-old student and he her married 36-year-old professor. Their letters show an illicit relationship developing from caution to infatuation. Heidegger waxed romantically philosophical:

....we become what we love and yet remain ourselves. Then we want to thank the beloved, but find nothing that suffices.

We can only thank with our selves. Love transforms gratitude into loyalty to our selves and unconditional faith in the other. That is how love steadily intensifies its innermost secret.

But both of them knew the relationship could not last, and Heidegger suggested that moving on from him would be in her best interest as a young scholar. In 1929, Arendt met and became engaged to a German journalist and classmate in Heidegger’s seminar. She sent her professor a note on her wedding day which begins, “Do not forget me, and do not forget how much and how deeply I know that our love has become the blessing of my life.”

Before his Nazi appointment, Arendt wrote to her former lover and mentor in 1932 or 33 upon hearing rumors “about Heidegger’s sympathy with National Socialism." (Her letter has been lost.) He replied with a number of excuses for specific acts—such as refusing to supervise Jewish students---and assured her of his feelings, but “nowhere in the letter is there any denial of Nazi sympathies,” writes Adam Kirsch at The New Yorker. The two met after the war in Freiburg, and Heidegger later sent Arendt a passionate, poetic letter in 1950, extolling the “exciting, still almost unspoken understanding” between them, “emerging from an affinity that was created so quickly, that comes from so far away, that has not been shaken by evil and confusion.”

Later, in a 1969 birthday tribute essay “Martin Heidegger at Eighty,” Arendt penned what has generally been taken as an exoneration of Heidegger. In it, she “compared Heidegger to Thales,” writes Gordon, “the ancient philosopher who grew so absorbed in contemplating the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet.” The truth is quite a bit more complicated than that, and quite a bit less lofty. But as Maria Popova eloquently writes, their relationship “exposes the complexity and contradiction of which the human spirit is woven, its threads nowhere more ragged than in love.” Read many more excerpts from their letters at Brain Pickings. And find complete letters collected in the volume, Letters: 1925-1975 - Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt.

via Brain Pickings

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

Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl Explains Why If We Have True Meaning in Our Lives, We Can Make It Through the Darkest of Times

In one school of popular reasoning, people judge historical outcomes that they think are favorable as worthy tradeoffs for historical atrocities. The argument appears in some of the most inappropriate contexts, such as discussions of slavery or the Holocaust. Or in individual thought experiments, such as that of a famous inventor whose birth was the result of a brutal assault. There are a great many people who consider this thinking repulsive, morally corrosive, and astoundingly presumptuous. Not only does it assume that every terrible thing that happens is part of a benevolent design, but it pretends to know which circumstances count as unqualified goods, and which can be blithely ignored. It determines future actions from a tidy and convenient story of the past.

We might contrast this attitude with a more Zen stance, for example, a radically agnostic “wait and see” approach to everything that happens. Not-knowing seems to give meditating monks a great deal of serenity in practice. But the theory terrifies most of us. Effects must have causes, we think, causes must have effects, and in order to predict what’s going to happen next (and thereby save our skins), we must know why we're doing what we're doing. The deep impulse is what psychologist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl identifies, in his pre-gender-neutrally titled book, as Man’s Search for Meaning. Despite the misuse of this faculty to create neurotic or dehumanizing myths, “man’s search for meaning,” writes Frankl, “is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.”

Frankl understood perfectly well how the construction of meaning—through narrative, art, relationships, social fictions, etc.—might be perverted for murderous ends. He was a survivor of four concentration camps, which took the lives of his parents, brother, and wife. The first part of his book, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” recounts the horror in detail, sparing no one accountability for their actions. From these experiences, Frankl draws a conclusion, one he explains in the interview above in two parts from 1977. “The lesson one could learn from Auschwitz,” he says, “and in other concentration camps, in the final analysis was, those who were oriented toward a meaning---toward a meaning to be fulfilled by them in the future---were most likely to survive" beyond the experience. "The question," Frankl says, "was survival for what?" (See a short animated summary of Frankl's book below.)

Frankl does not excuse the deaths of his family, friends, and millions of others in his psychological theory, which he calls logotherapy. He certainly does not trivialize the most unimaginable of in-human experiences. “We all said to each other in camp,” he writes, “that there could be no earthly happiness which could compensate for all we had suffered.” But it was not the hope of happiness that “gave us courage,” he writes. It was the “will to meaning” that looked to the future, not to the past. In Frankl’s existentialist view, we ourselves create that meaning, for ourselves, and not for others. Logotherapy, Frankl writes, “defocuses all the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms which play such a great role in the development of neuroses.” We must acknowledge the need to make sense of our lives and fill what Frankl called the “existential vacuum.” And we alone are responsible for writing better stories for ourselves.

To dig deeper in Frankl's philosophy, you can read not only Man’s Search for Meaning but also The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy.

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

Robert Pirsig Reveals the Personal Journey That Led Him to Write His Counterculture Classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

I well remember pulling Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from my parents’ shelves at age twelve or thirteen, working my way through a few pages, and stopping in true perplexity to ask, “what is this?” The book fit no formal scheme or genre I had ever encountered before. I understood its language, but I did not know how to read it. I still don’t, though I’ve had decades to study some of Pirsig’s references and influences, from Plato to Kant to Dōgen. Is this memoir? Fiction? Philosophy? A meditation on machinery, like Henry Adams’ strange essay “The Dynamo and the Virgin”? Yes.

Pirsig’s countercultural classic, published in 1974 after five years of rejections (121 in total) was “not… a marketing man’s dream,” as the editor at his eventual publisher, William Morrow, wrote to him at the time. Nevertheless, it sold—“50,000 copies in three months,” writes the L.A. Times, “and more than 5 million in the decades since. The dense tome has been translated into at least 27 languages…. Its popularity made Pirsig ‘probably the most widely read philosopher alive,’ one British journalist wrote in 2006.’” Pirsig, who died this past Monday, only wrote one other work, the philosophical novel Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. But he will be remembered as an important, if quixotic, figure in 20th century thought.

Zen ostensibly recounts a motorcycle journey Pirsig took with his son, Chris, and two friends. They are shadowed by another character, Phaedrus, the author's neurotic alter ego. Pirsig poured all of himself into the book: his unorthodox philosophical and spiritual journey, his struggle with schizophrenia, his close and fretful relationship to his son (who later succumbed to drug addiction and was murdered at age 22, five years after Zen came out). It is a book “filled with unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable questions.”

The kind of deep ambiguity and uncertainty Zen explores is not easy to write about, unsurprisingly, and in the NPR interview above from 1974, Pirsig describes his struggles as a writer—the distractions and intrusions, the self-doubt and confusion. Pirsig secluded himself for much of the writing of the book, and for much of it worked a day job writing technical manuals, which explains quite a lot about its intricate levels of technical detail.

Pirsig’s descriptions of the hard-won self-discipline (and exhaustion) that the writer’s life requires will ring true for anyone who has tried to write a book. He sums up his motivation succinctly: “this was really a compulsive book. If I didn’t do it, I’d feel worse than if I did do it.” But Pirsig found he couldn’t make any progress as a writer until he gave up trying to be “in quotes, a ‘writer,’” or play the role of one anyway. “It was always a separation of my real self from the act of writing,” he says.

His process sounds like the freewriting of Kerouac's road novel or the automatic writing of the Surrealists: “I could almost watch my hand moving on the page; there was almost no volition one way or the other, it was just happening.” What he identifies as the “sincerity” of the book's voice helps steady readers who must trust a very unreliable narrator to guide them through a philosophy of what Pirsig calls “quality”---a metaphysical condition that underlies religions and philosophies East and West. "One can meditate," he wrote, "on the fact that the old English roots for the Buddha and Quality, God and good, appear to be identical." Pirsig subjected all human endeavor to the scrutiny of "quality," including so-called "value free" science, a characterization he found dubious.

In the BBC radio interview above, you can hear Pirsig describe his personal and intellectual journey, which took him through a troubled childhood in Minnesota, a tour in the Korean War, an academic career, and eventually a central role in the “whole attempt to reform America” begun by "beatniks" and "hippies" in San Francisco. (Both words, he wrote, were "cliches and stereotypes... invented for the antitechnologists, the antisystem people.") Urged by a university colleague to pursue the question “what is quality?,” Pirsig undertook an obsessive investigation. His willingness and courage to follow wherever it led defined the rest of his life as a writer and thinker.

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

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