It is often claimed that relativism, subjectivism and nihilism are typically modern philosophical problems that emerge with the breakdown of traditional values, customs and ways of life. The result is the absence of meaning, the lapse of religious faith, and feeling of alienation that is so widespread in modernity.
The Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) gave one of the most penetrating analyses of this complex phenomenon of modernity. But somewhat surprisingly he seeks insight into it not in any modern thinker but rather in an ancient one, the Greek philosopher Socrates.
In this course created by former associate professor at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre, Jon Stewart, we will explore how Kierkegaard deals with the problems associated with relativism, the lack of meaning and the undermining of religious faith that are typical of modern life. His penetrating analyses are still highly relevant today and have been seen as insightful for the leading figures of Existentialism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism.
You can take Søren Kierkegaard for free by selecting the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the course for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.
This two part course from the University of Pennsylvania (Part 1 here – Part 2 here) “traces the origins of philosophy in the Western tradition in the thinkers of Ancient Greece,” beginning with “the Presocratic natural philosophers who were active in Ionia in the 6th century BCE and are also credited with being the first scientists.” The course description continues:
Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximines made bold proposals about the ultimate constituents of reality, while Heraclitus insisted that there is an underlying order to the changing world. Parmenides of Elea formulated a powerful objection to all these proposals, while later Greek theorists (such as Anaxagoras and the atomist Democritus) attempted to answer that objection. In fifth-century Athens, Socrates insisted on the importance of the fundamental ethical question—“How shall I live?”—and his pupil, Plato, and Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, developed elaborate philosophical systems to explain the nature of reality, knowledge, and human happiness. After the death of Aristotle, in the Hellenistic period, Epicureans and Stoics developed and transformed that earlier tradition.
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2020 was “a year for the (record) books in publishing,” wrote Jim Milliot in Publisher’s Weekly this past January, a surge continuing into 2021. Yet some kinds of print books have so declined in sales there may be no reason to keep publishing them, or buying them, since their equivalents online are superior in almost every respect to any version on paper. As I finally conceded during a recent, aggressive spring cleaning, I personally have no reason to store heavy, bulky, dusty reference books, except in cases of extreme sentiment.
Started in 1995 by Stanford philosopher Edward Zalta with only two entries, the SEP is “positively ancient in internet years,” but it is hardly “ossified,” remaining an online source “‘comparable in scope, depth and authority,’” the American Library Association’s Booklist review wrote, “to the biggest philosophy encyclopedias in print.”
I personally think the SEP is just as interesting for its content as its achievement, if not more so — and now, thanks to engineer and developer Joseph DiCastro, that content is more accessible than ever, though an interactive visualization project and search engine called Visualizing SEP.
Visualizing SEP “provides clear visualizations based on a philosophical taxonomy that DiCastro adapted from the one developed by the Indiana University Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO),” Justin Weinberg writes at Daily Nous. “Type a term into the search box and suggested SEP entries will be listed. Click on one of the entry titles, and a simple visualization will appear with your selected entry at the center and related entries surrounding it.” At the top of the page, you can select from a series of “domains.” Each selection produces a similar visualization of various-sized dots.
I found enough entries to keep me busy for hours in the very first domain graph, “Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art.” The last of these, simply titled “Thinker,” links together all of the philosophers mentioned in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, from the most famous household names to the most obscure and scholastic. Just skimming through these names and reading the brief biographies at the left will leave readers with a broader contextual understanding than they could gain from a print encyclopedia. (Click on the “Article Details” button to expand the full article).
The visualizer project carries forth into the data-obsessed 21st century one of the best things about the Internet in its earliest years: access to free, high quality (and highly portable) information with few barriers for entry. Learn more about how to best navigate Visualizing SEP at Daily Nous.
A common political distortion claims that socialists are lazy and want to live off other people’s labor. Never mind that this description best applies to those who do not work but live off rents, dividends, and tax breaks. A bigger problem with the idea lies in its definition of “work,” conflating labor-for-hire with labor for a purpose. In Karl Marx’s theories, work occupies a central position as a human value. We all want to work, he thought. We are not born, however, wanting to maximize shareholder value.
Marx believed that “work, at its best, is what makes us human,” X-Files star Gillian Anderson tells us in the BBC Radio 4 animation above. “‘It fulfills our species essence,’ as he put it. Work allows us “to live, to be creative, to flourish.” Work in the industrial 19th century, however, did nothing of the kind. You only need to imagine for a moment the soot-filled factories, child labor, complete lack of worker protections and benefits to see the kinds of conditions to which Marx wrote in response. “Work,” says Anderson, in brief, “destroyed workers.”
Under capitalism, Marx maintained, workers are “alienated” from their labor, a concept that does not just mean emotionally depressed or creatively unfulfilled. As early as 1844, over twenty years before the first volume of Capital appeared, Marx would elaborate the concept of “estranged labor” in an essay of the same name:
The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity.
In an economy where things matter more than people, people become devalued things: the “realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.” Workers are not only spiritually dissatisfied under capitalism, they are alienated from the fruit of their labor “to the point of starving to death.” To be an alienated worker means to be literally kept from things one needs to live.
This is the kind of work Marxists and socialists have opposed, that which grossly enriches a few at the expense of most everyone else. Whether or not we are content with Marxist solutions or feel a need for new theories, every serious student of history, economy, and culture has to come to grips with Marx’s formidable critiques. In the video above, Alain de Botton’s School of Life, a self-described “pro-Capitalist institution,” attempts to do so in ten minutes or less.
“Most people agree that we need to improve our economic system somehow,” says de Botton. “It threatens our planet through excessive consumption, distracts us with irrelevant advertising, leaves people hungry and without healthcare, and fuels unnecessary wars.” It perpetuates, in other words, profound alienation on a massive scale. Of course it does, Marx might respond. That’s exactly what the system is designed to do. Or as he actually wrote, “the only wheels which political economy sets in motion are greed, and the war amongst the greedy — competition.”
Created by the University of Edinburgh, the online course Introduction to Philosophy introduces students to “some of the main areas of research in contemporary philosophy. In each module, a different philosopher will talk [students] through some of the most important questions and issues in their area of expertise.” The course begins by asking “what philosophy is – what are its characteristic aims and methods, and how does it differ from other subjects?” Then the online course (offered on the Coursera platform) provides an overview of several different areas of philosophy, including: Epistemology, Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Mind, Political Philosophy, Moral Philosophy, and Metaphysics.
You can take Introduction to Philosophy for free by selecting the audit option when you enroll. If you want to take the course for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.
Most American students in philosophy live on a diet of ancient Greek philosophy on the one hand, and then “modern” philosophy, which starts around the time of Descartes (the 17th century), with numerous schools and approaches spilling into the present day. If you get anything from between those ancient days and modernity, it’s probably some churchmen, i.e. Augustine (from the 4th century) and Thomas Aquinas (the 13th century), with perhaps a few Romans thrown in there and (if you’re Jewish) Maimonides (12th century).
But a key part of this lineage was the Eastward turn that the great works of Greek and Roman philosophy took during the so-called Dark Ages, when they were preserved and copied in the Islamic world, and this period produced a wealth of philosophy including two figures who became influential enough in the West that their names were Latinized: Ibn Sīnā (980-1037 C.E.) and Ibn Rushd, a.k.a. Averroes (1126-1198). Aquinas was very familiar with these figures and incorporated them into his influential works, and in the case of Ibn Sina, at least, important figures like John Locke had definitely known at least about his views, if not his actual works.
Peter was good enough to recommend some readings to introduce us and our listeners to this figure, some of which he actually wrote. Because of the volume, redundancy, and style of Ibn Sīnā’s writings, some sort of guide to collect and to some degree explain passages is essential for getting a handle on this idiosyncratic and brilliant thinker. He wrote at least three different versions of his all-encompassing system, which was influenced by and meant to supplant Aristotle’s. In addition to philosophical/theological topics, it included mathematics, science, psychology, and more. So instead of trying to read a whole work covering all that, it makes more sense to pick individual topics and then look at the various formulations he gave about these.
Our two topics for this discussion were a peculiar argument for the existence of God — with important implications for talking about metaphysics more generally — and an argument for the immateriality of the soul, which likewise tells us a lot about the way that Ibn Sīnā thought about knowledge and its relation to the world.
The argument for the existence of God was later called by Thomas Aquinas “the argument from contingency.” It posits that things in the world don’t simply exist, but that they require something else to support their existence. This isn’t a cause is the chronological sense that we talk about it: a prior event that gave rise to the thing. Rather, the material components of something in a certain arrangement make it continue to exist as that thing right now; for example, a house exists because its component wood parts exist, with nails and such holding them in place. And the wood in turn has its character because of its physical/chemical components, etc. If these component causes weren’t in place, the thing would not exist; the thing is thus “contingent,” meaning it might well not have existed were it not for those causes.
This picture of the universe thus includes a giant network of causality, but does that network itself rest on anything? According to Ibn Sīnā, there must be something that is not contingent that holds everything else up. But is this thing God (in the sense that a good Muslim of his time would recognize it)? Ibn Sīnā then has a long series of arguments to show one by one that just by being “the necessary being,” this entity also must be unique, must be all-powerful, generous, and all the other things one would expect God to be.
The argument for the immortality of the soul is perhaps Ibn Sīnā’s most famous argument, often called the flying or floating man argument. It’s a thought experiment whereby you imagine you’ve just been created, but fully mature, so you can think, but with no memory, and your senses are inoperable. You can’t even feel gravity or the ground under your feet (thus the “flying” part). According to Ibn Sīnā, you would still in such a situation know that you exist. Since your apprehension of self did not include any part of your body (you couldn’t feel your body at all), that is supposed to prove that your body is not an essential part of what you are.
Ibn Sīnā thought this argument definitive because of his theory of knowledge by which if you know anything at all, then you know about the essential components of that thing. If you know what a triangle is, you know that it’s an abstract geometrical figure with three straight sides. If you know what a horse is, you know that it’s a biological animal with a particular character that you can identify. And to know what you are essentially, you only need know that feeling of your own mind; anything else about that mind being associated with a particular body that lives in a particular part of the world and is just knowledge of contingent, relational facts about yourself.
A gentleman goes to the movies, only to find a marquee full of retreads, reboots, sequels, and prequels. He demands to know why no one makes original films anymore, a reasonable question people often ask. But it seems he has run directly into a graduate student in critical theory behind the glass. The ticket-seller rattles off a theory of unoriginality that is difficult to refute but also, it turns out, only a word-for-word recitation of the Wikipedia page on “Plagiarism.”
This is one of the ironies in “Allergy to Originality” every English teacher will appreciate. In the short, animated New York Times Op-Doc by Drew Christie, an official Sundance selection in 2014, “two men discuss whether anything is truly original — especially in movies and books,” notes the Times. The question leads us to consider what we might mean by originality when every work is built from pieces of others. “In creating this Op-Doc animation,” Christie writes, “I copied well-known images and photographs, retraced innumerable drawings, then photocopied them as a way to underscore the un-originality of the entire process.”
From William Burroughs’ cut-ups to Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” moderns have only been re-discovering what ancients accepted with a shrug — no one can take credit for a story, not even the author. Barthes argued that “literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”
In Christie’s short, the smartass theater employee continues quoting sources, now from the “Originality” Wikipedia, now from Mark Twain, who had many things to say about originality. Twain once wrote to Helen Keller, for example, outraged that she had been accused of plagiarism. He came to her defense with an earnest conviction: “The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterance — is plagiarism.”
Postmodern sophistry from Mark Twain? Maybe. We haven’t had much opportunity to verbally spar in public like this lately, unmasked and in search of entertainment in a public square. If you find yourself exasperated with the streaming choices on offer, if the books you’re reading all start to feel too familiar, consider the infinite number of creative possibilities inherent in the art of quotation — and remember that we’re always repeating, replaying, and remixing what came before, whether or not we cite our sources.
Marshall McLuhan famously said “The medium is the message,” by which he meant that when we receive information, its effect on us is determined as much by the form of that information as by the actual content.
The result is much more philosophical context than you’d get in a typical Pretty Much Pop discussion. Plato, for example, argued (through the character of Socrates) in the Phaedrus against writing, which he said amounts to off-loading thought to this inert thing, when it should be lively in our minds and our direct conversations. Postman’s book describes the Age of Print as highly congenial toward lengthy, abstract reasoning. High literacy rates, particularly in America, conditioned people to expect that this is how information is to be received, and as such they were, for instance, prepared to listen raptly to the Lincoln-Douglas debates in which the speakers provided lawyerly speeches that might span multiple hours.
Postman, an educational theorist, described television as not just providing a no-context experience whose high level of visual and auditory stimulation beats its spectators into thoughtless passivity, but that its popularity positively infects all the other communication channels available. Of course there is still in-person teaching, but television shortens attention spans such that teachers now feel the need to constantly entertain instead of forcing students to make the effort required to attend carefully to what they have to teach. Of course there are still books, but they are less read, and the competition of television for our time has changed the presentation within books so that they must be as immediately and consistently appealing as television.
McLuhan described television as a “hot” medium due to its high level of stimulation, where a “cool” one like a textbook requires more active participation of the recipient. We discuss how Postman’s critique fares in the Age of the Internet, which interestingly mixes things up, with more interactivity (in that sense cooler) yet even more possibility for sensory distraction (in that perhaps more important sense hotter). To supplement Postman, we also consulted a widely read article from The Atlantic written by Nicholas Carr in 2008 called “Is Google Making Us Stupid.”
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