Watch Philosophy Lectures That Became a Hit During COVID by Professor Michael Sugrue (RIP): From Plato and Marcus Aurelius to Critical Theory

If we ask which phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor has made the great­est impact in this decade, there’s a sol­id case to be made for the late Michael Sug­rue. Yet in the near­ly four-decade-long career that fol­lowed his stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go under Allan Bloom (author of The Clos­ing of the Amer­i­can Mind, lat­er immor­tal­ized in Saul Bel­low’s Rav­el­stein), he nev­er pub­lished a book, nor took a tenured posi­tion. His last place of employ­ment as a lec­tur­er was Ave Maria Uni­ver­si­ty, a small Catholic insti­tu­tion found­ed by the man behind Domi­no’s Piz­za. After his death ear­li­er this year, his work might have lived on only in the mem­o­ries of the stu­dents with whom he shared class­rooms.

That would have been the case, at least, if Sug­rue’s daugh­ter had­n’t uploaded his lec­tures to Youtube dur­ing the COVID pan­dem­ic, when view­ers the world over were more than ready for a dose of philo­soph­i­cal wis­dom. “The lec­tures were record­ed as part of the Great Minds of the West­ern Intel­lec­tu­al Tra­di­tion series,” writes John Hirschauer in a 2021 Amer­i­can Con­ser­v­a­tive pro­file, “a col­lec­tion of talks on the West’s great­est authors and thinkers” pub­lished by The Teach­ing Com­pa­ny in 1992. “Sugrue’s first lec­ture in the series is on Pla­to, the last on crit­i­cal the­o­ry. His remark­able ora­to­ry skill is on dis­play through­out.” What’s more, “he does not car­ry a note card or read from a prompter. There is hard­ly a stut­ter in 37 hours of footage.”

Sug­rue was diag­nosed with can­cer in the ear­ly twen­ty-tens, and “doc­tors at the time gave him five years to live. He said the thought of Mar­cus Aure­lius had tak­en on new mean­ing since his diag­no­sis.” Indeed, Sug­rue’s lec­ture on the Roman emper­or and Sto­ic icon is the most pop­u­lar of his videos, with over one and a half mil­lion views at the time of this writ­ing. Over the years, we’ve fea­tured dif­fer­ent intro­duc­tions to Sto­icism here on Open Cul­ture, as well as the work of oth­er Sto­ics like the states­man-drama­tist Seneca the Younger. But Sug­rue’s 42-minute exe­ge­sis on Mar­cus Aure­lius — not just “the most inter­est­ing of the Sto­ics,” but also “the one exam­ple of an absolute ruler who behaves him­self in such a way as not to dis­grace him­self” — has res­onat­ed unusu­al­ly far and wide.

Then, as now, Mar­cus Aure­lius serves as “a stand­ing reproach to our self-indul­gence, a stand­ing reproach to the idea that we are unable to deal with the cir­cum­stances of human life.” He ful­ly inter­nal­ized the cen­tral Sto­ic insight that there are “only two kinds of things: there are the things you can con­trol and the things you can’t.” Every­thing falls into the lat­ter group except “your inten­tions, your behav­ior, your actions.” And indeed, just as Sug­rue kept look­ing to the exam­ple of Mar­cus Aure­lius — return­ing to his text Med­i­ta­tions as recent­ly as a webi­nar he gave two years ago — stu­dents of phi­los­o­phy yet unborn will no doubt find their way to the philo­soph­i­cal guid­ance that he him­self has left behind.

Below, you can watch a playlist of Sug­rue’s lec­ture series, Great Minds of the West­ern Intel­lec­tu­al Tra­di­tion.

via NYTimes

Relat­ed con­tent:

What Is Sto­icism? A Short Intro­duc­tion to the Ancient Phi­los­o­phy That Can Help You Cope with Our Hard Mod­ern Times

How to Be a Sto­ic in Your Every­day Life: Phi­los­o­phy Pro­fes­sor Mas­si­mo Pigli­uc­ci Explains

Three Huge Vol­umes of Sto­ic Writ­ings by Seneca Now Free Online, Thanks to Tim Fer­riss

The Sto­ic Wis­dom of Roman Emper­or Mar­cus Aure­lius: An Intro­duc­tion in Six Short Videos

Oxford’s Free Intro­duc­tion to Phi­los­o­phy: Stream 41 Lec­tures

A His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy in 81 Video Lec­tures: A Free Course That Explores Phi­los­o­phy from Ancient Greece to Mod­ern Times

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Hannah Arendt Explains How Totalitarian Regimes Arise–and How We Can Prevent Them

“Adolf Eich­mann went to the gal­lows with great dig­ni­ty,” wrote the polit­i­cal philoso­pher Han­nah Arendt, describ­ing the scene lead­ing up to the promi­nent Holo­caust-orga­niz­er’s exe­cu­tion. After drink­ing half a bot­tle of wine, turn­ing down the offer of reli­gious assis­tance, and even refus­ing the black hood offered him at the gal­lows, he gave a brief, strange­ly high-spir­it­ed speech before the hang­ing. “It was as though in those last min­utes he was sum­ming up the les­son that this long course in human wicked­ness had taught us — the les­son of the fear­some word-and-thought-defy­ing banal­i­ty of evil.”

These lines come from Eich­mann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banal­i­ty of Evil, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1963 as a five-part series in the New York­er. Eich­mann “was pop­u­lar­ly described as an evil mas­ter­mind who orches­trat­ed atroc­i­ties from a cushy Ger­man office, and many were eager to see the so-called ‘desk mur­der­er’ tried for his crimes,” explains the nar­ra­tor of the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above, writ­ten by Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Dublin polit­i­cal the­o­ry pro­fes­sor Joseph Lacey. “But the squea­mish man who took the stand seemed more like a dull bureau­crat than a sadis­tic killer,” and this “dis­par­i­ty between Eich­man­n’s nature and his actions” inspired Arendt’s famous sum­ma­tion.

A Ger­man Jew who fled her home­land in 1933, as Hitler rose to pow­er, Arendt “ded­i­cat­ed her­self to under­stand­ing how the Nazi regime came to pow­er.” Against the com­mon notion that “the Third Reich was a his­tor­i­cal odd­i­ty, a per­fect storm of unique­ly evil lead­ers, sup­port­ed by Ger­man cit­i­zens, look­ing for revenge after their defeat in World War I,” she argued that “the true con­di­tions behind this unprece­dent­ed rise of total­i­tar­i­an­ism weren’t spe­cif­ic to Ger­many.” Rather, in moder­ni­ty, “indi­vid­u­als main­ly appear in the social world to pro­duce and con­sume goods and ser­vices,” which fos­ters ide­olo­gies “in which indi­vid­u­als were seen only for their eco­nom­ic val­ue, rather than their moral and polit­i­cal capac­i­ties.”

In such iso­lat­ing con­di­tions, she thought, “par­tic­i­pat­ing in the regime becomes the only way to recov­er a sense of iden­ti­ty and com­mu­ni­ty. While con­demn­ing Eich­man­n’s “mon­strous actions, Arendt saw no evi­dence that Eich­mann him­self was unique­ly evil. She saw him as a dis­tinct­ly ordi­nary man who con­sid­ered obe­di­ence the high­est form of civic duty — and for Arendt, it was exact­ly this ordi­nar­i­ness that was most ter­ri­fy­ing.” Accord­ing to her the­o­ry, there was noth­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly Ger­man about all of this: any suf­fi­cient­ly mod­ern­ized cul­ture could pro­duce an Eich­mann, a cit­i­zen who defines him­self by par­tic­i­pa­tion in his soci­ety regard­less of that soci­ety’s larg­er aims. This led her to the con­clu­sion that  “think­ing is our great­est weapon against the threats of moder­ni­ty,” some of which have become only more threat­en­ing over the past six decades.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to the Life & Thought of Han­nah Arendt: Pre­sent­ed by the BBC Radio’s In Our Time

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

Large Archive of Han­nah Arendt’s Papers Dig­i­tized by the Library of Con­gress: Read Her Lec­tures, Drafts of Arti­cles, Notes & Cor­re­spon­dence

Han­nah Arendt on “Per­son­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty Under Dic­ta­tor­ship:” Bet­ter to Suf­fer Than Col­lab­o­rate

Take Han­nah Arendt’s Final Exam for Her 1961 Course “On Rev­o­lu­tion”

Watch Han­nah Arendt’s Final Inter­view (1973)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

High-Tech Analysis of Ancient Scroll Reveals Plato’s Burial Site and Final Hours

Even if you can name only one ancient Greek, you can name Pla­to. You can also prob­a­bly say at least a lit­tle about him, if only some of the things human­i­ty has known since antiq­ui­ty. Until recent­ly, of course, that qual­i­fi­ca­tion would have been redun­dant. But now, thanks to an ongo­ing high-tech push to read hereto­fore inac­ces­si­ble ancient doc­u­ments, we’re wit­ness­ing the emer­gence of new knowl­edge about that most famous of all Greek philoso­phers — or at least one of the most famous Greek philoso­phers, matched in renown only by his teacher Socrates and his stu­dent Aris­to­tle.

Up until now, we’ve only had a gen­er­al idea of where Pla­to was interred after his death in 348 BC. But “thanks to an ancient text and spe­cial­ized scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy,” writes Smithsonian.com’s Son­ja Ander­son, “researchers say they have solved the mys­tery of Plato’s bur­ial place: The Greek philoso­pher was interred in the gar­den of his Athens acad­e­my, where he once tutored a young Aris­to­tle.” This loca­tion was record­ed about two mil­len­nia ago “on a papyrus scroll housed in the Roman city of Her­cu­la­neum,” which was entombed along with Pom­peii by the explo­sion of Mount Vesu­vius in 79 AD.

Like much else in those cities, this scroll was pre­served for cen­turies under lay­ers of ash. It was just one of many scrolls dis­cov­ered in a vil­la, which may have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, back in 1750. But for long there­after, those scrolls were more or less unread­able, hav­ing been so thor­ough­ly charred by the explo­sion of Mount Vesu­vius that they crum­bled to dust at any attempt to unroll them. But “recent break­throughs have allowed researchers to read the frag­ile texts with­out touch­ing them”: wit­ness the projects involv­ing par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tors and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture.

The research project that has deci­phered part of this scroll, a text by the philoso­pher Philode­mus called the His­to­ry of the Acad­e­my — that is, Pla­to’s acad­e­my in Athens — is led by Uni­ver­si­ty of Pisa pro­fes­sor of papy­rol­o­gy Graziano Ranoc­chia. Using a “bion­ic eye” tech­nique involv­ing infrared and X‑ray scan­ners, he and his team have also dis­cov­ered evi­dence that Pla­to did­n’t much like the music played at his deathbed by a Thra­cian slave girl. “Despite bat­tling a fever and being on the brink of death,” writes the Guardian’s Loren­zo Ton­do, he “retained enough lucid­i­ty to cri­tique the musi­cian for her lack of rhythm.” Even if you know lit­tle about Pla­to, you’re prob­a­bly not sur­prised to hear that he was point­ing out the dif­fer­ence between the real and the ide­al up until the very end.

via Smith­son­ian Mag

Relat­ed con­tent:

Researchers Use AI to Decode the First Word on an Ancient Scroll Burned by Vesu­vius

How Ancient Scrolls, Charred by the Erup­tion of Mount Vesu­vius in 79 AD, Are Now Being Read by Par­ti­cle Accel­er­a­tors, 3D Mod­el­ing & Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

2,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of the Ten Com­mand­ments Gets Dig­i­tized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Res­o­lu­tion

Orson Welles Nar­rates an Ani­ma­tion of Plato’s Cave Alle­go­ry

Plato’s Dia­logue Gor­gias Gets Adapt­ed into a Short Avant-Garde Film

How 99% of Ancient Lit­er­a­ture Was Lost

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

Daniel Dennett Presents the 4 Biggest Ideas in Philosophy in One of His Final Videos (RIP)

A week ago, Big Think released this video fea­tur­ing philoso­pher Daniel Den­nett talk­ing about the four biggest ideas in phi­los­o­phy. Today, we learned that he passed away at age 82. The New York Times obit­u­ary for Den­nett reads: “Espous­ing his ideas in best sell­ers, he insist­ed that reli­gion was an illu­sion, free will was a fan­ta­sy and evo­lu­tion could only be explained by nat­ur­al selec­tion.” “Mr. Den­nett com­bined a wide range of knowl­edge with an easy, often play­ful writ­ing style to reach a lay pub­lic, avoid­ing the impen­e­tra­ble con­cepts and turgid prose of many oth­er con­tem­po­rary philoso­phers. Beyond his more than 20 books and scores of essays, his writ­ings even made their way into the the­ater and onto the con­cert stage.”

Above, Den­nett, a long-time phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor at Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty, out­lines the “four eras he evolved through on his own jour­ney as a philoso­pher: clas­si­cal phi­los­o­phy, evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry, memet­ic the­o­ry, and the inten­tion­al stance. Each stage added depth to his per­spec­tive and under­stand­ing… Dennett’s key take­away is a request for philoso­phers to reeval­u­ate their method­olo­gies, urg­ing mod­ern-day thinkers to embrace the insights offered by new sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies. By com­bin­ing the exis­ten­tial and the­o­ret­i­cal view­points of philoso­phers with the ana­lyt­i­cal and evi­den­tial per­spec­tive of sci­en­tists, we can begin to ful­ly and accu­rate­ly inter­pret the world around us.”

To help you delve a lit­tle deep­er into Daniel Den­net­t’s world, we’ve also post­ed below a vin­tage TED video where the philoso­pher dis­cuss­es the illu­sion of con­scious­ness. We would also encour­age you to explore the Den­nett items in the Relat­eds below.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Daniel Den­nett Presents Sev­en Tools For Crit­i­cal Think­ing

How to Argue With Kind­ness and Care: 4 Rules from Philoso­pher Daniel Den­nett

Daniel Den­nett and Cor­nel West Decode the Phi­los­o­phy of The Matrix

Hear What It Sounds Like When Philoso­pher Daniel Dennett’s Brain Activ­i­ty Gets Turned into Music

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67 Logical Fallacies Explained in 11 Minutes

Fallacies—notes Pur­due’s Writ­ing Lab—“are com­mon errors in rea­son­ing that will under­mine the log­ic of your argu­ment. Fal­lac­i­es can be either ille­git­i­mate argu­ments or irrel­e­vant points, and are often iden­ti­fied because they lack evi­dence that sup­ports their claim. Avoid these com­mon fal­lac­i­es in your own argu­ments and watch for them in the argu­ments of oth­ers.” Pur­due’s web­site then high­lights a num­ber of the men­tal traps that stu­dents often fall into—for exam­ple, the slip­pery slope, beg­ging the claim, cir­cu­lar argu­ments, the red her­ring, and more. But if you want a rapid-fire intro­duc­tion to many more log­i­cal fal­lac­i­es, look no fur­ther than the video above. In 11 min­utes, you will come across ones you may not have known about before—from the No True Scots­man and the Texas Sharp­shoot­er, to the Tu QuoQue and the Igno­ra­tio Elenchi. But it also has some time­less ones we see every day. Indeed who among us has­n’t expe­ri­enced the Sunk Cost Fal­la­cy at work, or the Ad Hominem attack on TV?

Relat­ed Con­tent 

24 Com­mon Cog­ni­tive Bias­es: A Visu­al List of the Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sys­tems Errors That Keep Us From Think­ing Ratio­nal­ly

Daniel Den­nett Presents Sev­en Tools For Crit­i­cal Think­ing

Phi­los­o­phy Ref­er­ee Hand Sig­nals

Is Consciousness an Illusion?? Five Experts in Science, Religion & Technology Explain

Even among non-neu­ro­sci­en­tists, deter­min­ing the ori­gin and pur­pose of con­scious­ness is wide­ly known as “the hard prob­lem.” Since its coinage by philoso­pher David Chalmers thir­ty years ago, that label has worked its way into a vari­ety of con­texts; about a decade ago, Tom Stop­pard even used it for the title of a play. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, it’s also ref­er­enced in the episode of Big Think’s Dis­patch­es from the Well above, which presents dis­cus­sions of the nature of con­scious­ness with neu­ro­sci­en­tist Christof Koch, Vedan­ta Soci­ety of New York min­is­ter Swa­mi Sar­vapriyanan­da, tech­nol­o­gy entre­pre­neur Reid Hoff­man, San­ta Fe Insti­tute Davis Pro­fes­sor of Com­plex­i­ty Melanie Mitchell, and math­e­mat­i­cal physi­cist Roger Pen­rose.

Koch describes con­scious­ness as “what you see, it’s what you hear, it’s the pains you have, the love you have, the fear, the pas­sion.” It is, in oth­er words, “the expe­ri­ence of any­thing,” and for all their sophis­ti­ca­tion, our mod­ern inquiries into it descend from René Descartes’ propo­si­tion, “Cog­i­to, ergo sum.” Sar­vapriyanan­da, too, makes ref­er­ence to Descartes in explain­ing his own con­cep­tion of con­scious­ness as “the light of lights,” by which “every­thing here is lit up.”

Mitchell con­ceives of it as a con­tin­u­um: “I’m more con­scious when I’m awake,” for exam­ple, and “cer­tain species are more con­scious than oth­er species.” And per­haps it could devel­op even in non-bio­log­i­cal enti­ties: “I don’t think that we have any machines that are con­scious in any inter­est­ing sense yet,” Mitchell says, but “if we ever do, they’ll be part of that spec­trum.”

The ques­tion of whether a machine can attain con­scious­ness nat­u­ral­ly aris­es in host Kmele Fos­ter’s con­ver­sa­tion with Hoff­man, who’s made seri­ous invest­ments in arti­fi­cial-intel­li­gence research. As impres­sive as AI chat­bots have late­ly become, few among us would be will­ing to deem them con­scious; nev­er­the­less, attempt­ing to cre­ate not just intel­li­gence but con­scious­ness in machines may prove a fruit­ful way to learn about the work­ings of the “gen­uine arti­cles” with­in us. Pen­rose’s the­o­ry holds that con­scious­ness aris­es from as-yet-unpre­dictable quan­tum process­es occur­ring in the micro­tubules of the brain. Per­haps, as Koch has sug­gest­ed, it actu­al­ly exists to one degree or anoth­er in all forms of mat­ter. Or maybe — to quote from a song in heavy rota­tion on my child­hood Walk­man — it’s just what you make of your­self.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Neu­ronal Basis of Con­scious­ness Course: A Free Online Course from Cal­tech

John Sear­le Makes A Force­ful Case for Study­ing Con­scious­ness, Where Every­thing Else Begins

Real­i­ty Is Noth­ing But a Hal­lu­ci­na­tion: A Mind-Bend­ing Crash Course on the Neu­ro­science of Con­scious­ness

The Sim­u­la­tion The­o­ry Explained In Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

What Is High­er Con­scious­ness?: How We Can Tran­scend Our Pet­ty, Day-to-Day Desires and Gain a Deep­er Wis­dom

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

Plato’s Dialogue Gorgias Gets Adapted into a Short Avant-Garde Film

The word sophis­ti­cat­ed may sound like praise today, but it orig­i­nat­ed as more of an accu­sa­tion. Trace its ety­mol­o­gy back far enough and you’ll encounter the sophists, itin­er­ant lec­tur­ers in ancient Greece who taught sub­jects like phi­los­o­phy, math­e­mat­ics, music, and rhetoric — the last of which they mas­tered no mat­ter their osten­si­ble sub­ject area. Their rep­u­ta­tion has passed down to us our cur­rent under­stand­ing of the word sophistry as “sub­tly decep­tive rea­son­ing or argu­men­ta­tion.” A sophist may or may not have known what he was talk­ing about, but he knew how to talk about it in the way his audi­ence want­ed to hear.

It is in the com­pa­ny of sophists that Pla­to places Socrates in the dia­logue Gor­gias, a sec­tion of which has been adapt­ed into the short film above. An “exper­i­men­tal video essay from Epoché mag­a­zine,” as Aeon describes it, it “com­bines some­what cryp­tic archival visu­als, a haunt­ing, dis­so­nant score, and text from an exchange between Socrates and the tit­u­lar Gor­gias on the nature of ora­to­ry.” The lat­ter describes ora­to­ry as his “art,” which serves “to pro­duce the kind of con­vic­tion need­ed in courts of law and oth­er large mass­es of peo­ple” on the sub­ject of “right and wrong.” Socrates, in his ques­tion­ing way, leads Gor­gias to hear his objec­tion that ora­to­ry pro­duces con­vic­tion with­out knowl­edge, mak­ing it a mere pseu­do-art or form of “flat­tery” akin to bak­ing pas­tries or beau­ti­ful­ly adorn­ing one’s own body.

“For some­one with no knowl­edge of the objects involved,” writes Epoché’s co-edi­tor John C. Brady, “the arts and the pseu­do-arts appear per­haps indis­tin­guish­able. But, inso­far as the pseu­do-arts focus on gen­er­at­ing belief first and fore­most (as opposed to ratio­nal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion) they have an advan­tage. In front of an audi­ence of chil­dren, the chef will beat the doc­tor when it comes to demon­strat­ing prowess in prepar­ing ‘whole­some’ foods.” To that extent, Socrates’ basic obser­va­tion holds up still today, more than 2,400 years after Gor­gias. The sit­u­a­tion may even have wors­ened in that time: “far from us mod­erns hav­ing a more ‘sci­en­tif­ic’ (i.e. ‘art­ful’) approach to our action,” haven’t the pseu­do-arts just “added to their reper­toire the lan­guage of ‘knowl­edge’?”

Such enlight­ened twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry men and women “clip on a Fit­bit to track the minu­ti­ae of move­ments, down­load a ‘Pomodoro’ sys­tem app to record the when and the what of their work through the day,” use “calo­rie-count­ed food diaries, bud­get apps, online track­ers that tell them how much time they are spend­ing on Twit­ter vs. e‑mail.” Their eyes are on the prize of a bal­cony, a work-life bal­ance; there’s often a carafe of wine air­ing in there some­where too.” We believe that, in order to real­ize this dream, “we need to be sci­en­tif­ic, ratio­nal, col­lect the data, work smarter not hard­er etc., etc. But haven’t we just here fall­en into the ora­tors’ trap?” All this “bet­ter liv­ing through data” starts to look like sim­ple per­pet­u­a­tion of “the ease and plea­sure of being ‘con­vinced’ by the many pseu­do-arts, rather than grap­pling with the real objects that con­sti­tute the con­crete­ness of our lives.” Want­i­ng is fun; know­ing exact­ly what we want and why we want it is phi­los­o­phy.

via Aeon

Relat­ed con­tent:

Lit­er­ary The­o­rist Stan­ley Fish Offers a Free Course on Rhetoric, or the Pow­er of Argu­ments

Jon Hamm Nar­rates a Mod­ern­ized Ver­sion of Plato’s Alle­go­ry of the Cave, Help­ing to Diag­nose Our Social Media-Induced Nar­cis­sism

The Drink­ing Par­ty (1965 Film) Adapts Plato’s Sym­po­sium to Mod­ern Times

Why Socrates Hat­ed Democ­ra­cies: An Ani­mat­ed Case for Why Self-Gov­ern­ment Requires Wis­dom & Edu­ca­tion

How to Speak: Watch the Lec­ture on Effec­tive Com­mu­ni­ca­tion That Became an MIT Tra­di­tion for Over 40 Years

How Pulp Fic­tion Uses the Socrat­ic Method, the Philo­soph­i­cal Method from Ancient Greece

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

Bertrand Russell: The Everyday Benefit of Philosophy Is That It Helps You Live with Uncertainty

On the strength of a few quo­ta­tions and the pop­u­lar lec­ture Why I am Not a Chris­t­ian, philoso­pher Bertrand Rus­sell has been char­ac­ter­ized as a so-called “pos­i­tive athe­ist,” a phrase that implies a high degree of cer­tain­ty. While it is true that Rus­sell saw “no rea­son to believe any of the dog­mas of tra­di­tion­al the­ol­o­gy” — he saw them, in fact, as pos­i­tive­ly harm­ful — it would be mis­lead­ing to sug­gest that he reject­ed all forms of meta­physics, mys­ti­cism, and imag­i­na­tive, even poet­ic, spec­u­la­tion.

Rus­sell saw a way to great­ness in the search for ulti­mate truth, by means of both hard sci­ence and pure spec­u­la­tion. In an essay enti­tled “Mys­ti­cism and Log­ic,” for exam­ple, Rus­sell con­trasts two “great men,” Enlight­en­ment philoso­pher David Hume, whose “sci­en­tif­ic impulse reigns quite unchecked,” and poet William Blake, in whom “a strong hos­til­i­ty to sci­ence co-exists with pro­found mys­tic insight.”

It’s inter­est­ing that Rus­sell choos­es Blake for an exam­ple. One of his oft-quot­ed apho­risms cribs a line from anoth­er mys­ti­cal poet, William But­ler Yeats, who wrote in “The Sec­ond Com­ing” (1920), “The best lack all con­vic­tion, while the worst / Are full of pas­sion­ate inten­si­ty.” Russell’s ver­sion of this, from his 1933 essay “The Tri­umph of Stu­pid­i­ty,” is a bit clunki­er rhetor­i­cal­ly speak­ing:

“The fun­da­men­tal cause of the trou­ble is that in the mod­ern world the stu­pid are cock­sure while the intel­li­gent are full of doubt.”

The quote has been sig­nif­i­cant­ly altered and stream­lined over time, it seems, yet it still serves as a kind of mot­to for the skep­ti­cal phi­los­o­phy Rus­sell advo­cat­ed, one he would par­tial­ly define in the 1960 inter­view above as a way to “keep us mod­est­ly aware of how much that seems like knowl­edge isn’t knowl­edge.” On the oth­er hand, phi­los­o­phy push­es ret­i­cent intel­lec­tu­als to “enlarge” their “imag­i­na­tive purview of the world into the hypo­thet­i­cal realm,” allow­ing “spec­u­la­tions about mat­ters where exact knowl­edge is not pos­si­ble.”

Where the quo­ta­tion above seems to pose an insol­u­ble problem—similar to the cog­ni­tive bias known as the “Dun­ning-Kruger Effect”—it seems in Russell’s esti­ma­tion a false dilem­ma. At the 9:15 mark, in answer to a direct ques­tion posed by inter­view­er Woodrow Wyatt about the “prac­ti­cal use of your sort of phi­los­o­phy to a man who wants to know how to con­duct him­self,” Rus­sell replies:

I think nobody should be cer­tain of any­thing. If you’re cer­tain, you’re cer­tain­ly wrong because noth­ing deserves cer­tain­ty. So one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a cer­tain ele­ment of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vig­or­ous­ly in spite of the doubt…. One has in prac­ti­cal life to act upon prob­a­bil­i­ties, and what I should look to phi­los­o­phy to do is to encour­age peo­ple to act with vig­or with­out com­plete cer­tain­ty.

Russell’s dis­cus­sion of the uses of phi­los­o­phy puts me in mind of anoth­er con­cept devised by a poet: John Keats’ “neg­a­tive capa­bil­i­ty,” or what Maria Popo­va calls “the art of remain­ing in doubt…. The will­ing­ness to embrace uncer­tain­ty, live with mys­tery, and make peace with ambi­gu­i­ty.” Per­haps Rus­sell would not char­ac­ter­ize it this way. He was, as you’ll see above, not much giv­en to poet­ic exam­ples. And indeed, Russell’s method relies a great deal more on log­ic and prob­a­bil­i­ty the­o­ry than Keats’. And yet the prin­ci­ple is strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar.

For Rus­sell, cer­tain­ty sti­fles progress, and an inabil­i­ty to take imag­i­na­tive risks con­signs us to inac­tion. A mid­dle way is required to live “vig­or­ous­ly,” that of phi­los­o­phy, which requires both the math­e­mat­ic and the poet­ic. In “Mys­ti­cism and Log­ic,” Rus­sell sums up his posi­tion suc­cinct­ly: “The great­est men who have been philoso­phers have felt the need of sci­ence and of mys­ti­cism: the attempt to har­monise the two was what made their life, and what always must, for all its ardu­ous uncer­tain­ty, make phi­los­o­phy, to some minds, a greater thing than either sci­ence or reli­gion.”

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Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What If We’re Wrong?: An Ani­mat­ed Video Chal­lenges Our Most Deeply Held Beliefs–With the Help of a Lud­wig Wittgen­stein Thought Exper­i­ment

Bertrand Russell’s Mes­sage to Peo­ple Liv­ing in the Year 2959: “Love is Wise, Hatred is Fool­ish”

Noam Chom­sky Defines The Real Respon­si­bil­i­ty of Intel­lec­tu­als: “To Speak the Truth and to Expose Lies” (1967)

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

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