Sunday, December 9, 2007

Dare to Be Deep

Philosophy used to be taught at colleges and universities to acquaint students with the rich heritage of the Western intellectual tradition, to present texts against which one might define, develop, challenge, and re-evaluate one’s own ideas, and to encourage logical thinking. But now, in an age where celebrity gossip dominates all of life, the student is less likely to learn about the intellectual achievements of the past and to encounter models of reasoned discourse than to be told, for example, that Kant is “a disaster” (Bertrand Russell), that John Dewey “replaces structure with fog” (Arthur C. Danto), that “Wittgenstein wants to make a bonfire of our philosophical vanities” (Hilary Putnam), that Jean-Paul Sartre is “an appalling language-user” (Mary Warnock), that A.J. Ayer “might have been a great philosopher--ruined by sex” (Gilbert Ryle), and even that awarding an honorary degree to Jacques Derrida showed “it had been a bad year for bullshit in Cambridge” (Hugh Mellor).

In an effort to restore philosophy to the grand tradition of providing a guide to wisdom and the conduct of life, philosophers must return to their true calling, which is to challenge people to dare to be deep.

Sad as it is to say, nobody’s going to accept you as a profound thinker unless they believe you have acquired your superior knowledge by reflecting upon the wisdom of the great philosophers. This does not mean you must spend your life studying their work or actually reading all their difficult books. Fortunately, the keys to becoming a profound thinker can be found in proven, practical guidelines and techniques to put you on the road to wisdom. For example, selective reading can save you years of time in achieving your goal.

Consider first and foremost the philosophers you have not read. Either they are major philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, or they are not. You need not read philosophers who are not major, for they are less influential and thus less important than the “majors.” This alone eliminates 99% of the philosophers who have ever written or are writing now. Of the remaining 1%, there are philosophers who you would no doubt read if you had more time, but unfortunately you don’t. No one will hold it against you if you have not read anything by this group of thinkers.

Then there are philosophers you intend to read as soon as you’ve read other philosophers. Again, it will not reflect badly on you if you have not read anything by philosophers who fall into this group. Take Aquinas, for example. No one would expect you to read the philosopher who attempted to reconcile Aristotle’s thought with Christianity until you had read Aristotle himself. So much for Aquinas. How about Aristotle? Surely no one would expect you to read Aristotle until you have read the works of Aristotle’s great teacher, Plato.

Next there are philosophers who treat topics that are not about anything you are thinking about right now or expect to think about in the foreseeable future. They can be removed from your reading list. And there are philosophers you suspect everyone has pretended to read, but whom probably very few have. Strike them from your “must read” list as well. You can use this technique to find countless other philosophers you can safely ignore.

Finally, there are philosophers everyone’s read, so there’s no need for you to read them too, and philosophers no one’s read, so there’s really no need for you to read them either.

If you tally up all the philosophers you must read, one conclusion seems inevitable: you only have to read Plato. After all, did not Alfred North Whitehead--a philosopher you would no doubt read if only you had the time--say the history of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato? So Relax. Dare to be deep and start reading a copy of Plato’s Republic today.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Minimal Maxims/#2 in a series

Hope lights a path out of the darkest woods; misadventure leads us back into them. --Jean-Jacques Rousseau

"Let bygones be bygones" is not so much good advice as a brute fact precisely because the past is unalterable. --Lord Acton

Even a poor argument by a Russell or a Dewey can be a thing of beauty, but a page of Heidegger is the ultimate insult. --A.J. Ayer

Having a conscience is a terrible burden except in the most favorable circumstances. --Oscar Wilde

The worst affairs, the ones which present the most intractable problems, are nearly always the work of single women or married men. --Marcel Proust

Etymologically Mixed Metaphor (see "Mixed, Not Stirred" below)

A writer for the New Yorker (October 29, 2007, p. 66) used the expression "spacious confines" to describe the metaphor "in the arena of truth." One might call this an etymologically mixed meta-metaphor.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Minimal Maxims/#1 in a series

Count no man consistent until he is dead. --Aristotle

Flirtation has a dual moral flaw: it is a questionable means to a dubious end. --Immanuel Kant

The most fatal obstacle to happiness is the overexamined life. --Mark Twain

Never apologize, never explain: a true friend does not require an apology; a false friend will not believe your explanation. --Truman Capote

Ignorance plays no favorites. --Voltaire

A Good Man to Know

Philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson’s eponymously-named blog is filled with nuggets of philosophical insight, political commentary, and keen observations on sports, music, and the like. In a post from January 29, 2007, he wrote movingly of his mentor, Joel Feinberg, from which I take this excerpt:

He was not just a great philosopher and a good man; he was a wonderful teacher and friend. He taught, mentored, and inspired hundreds of graduate students during his long, distinguished career. Some of them, because of his influence, have gone on to do great things. Some of us, in spite of his influence, have gone on to do mediocre things. I miss you, Joel.

As incredible as it may sound, I have never heard (or seen) a single disparaging comment about Joel. The man was universally loved. Of how many people can that be said?

Hours after this blog was posted, "Will," a regular visitor to the blog, left this comment:

Joel sucked.

In a follow-up comment, Will explained that he assumed Keith Burgess-Jackson knew him well enough by now to recognize “a snappy comeback when you see one and an attempt at humor.”

In what can only be described as a monumental act of forbearance (one that must have been preceded by a huge sigh), Keith Burgess-Jackson replied:

Yes, I know you well, Will. You couldn’t bear the thought that someone, somewhere, hadn’t been disparaged.

Monday, September 17, 2007


In the week following Ingmar Bergman’s death, David Denby wrote in The New Yorker that Bergman “was perhaps the most influential of all filmmakers as well as the most widely parodied.” (August 13, 2007, p. 10).

Of course, Denby said “perhaps,” and he supported his view by writing that “In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, antic couples quarreled in mock Swedish, film students spoofed his morbid dream sequences, Woody Allen sent the hooded figure of death from ‘The Seventh Seal’ stalking through ‘Love and Death’.”

Nevertheless, his assertion is astonishing. It was as if someone had called Nietzsche “perhaps the most influential of all philosophers as well as the most widely parodied,” and had noted that in the nineteen-seventies students walked about Harvard Square in Nietzsche T-shirts, that some thinkers have called Nietzsche the philosopher of the twentieth century, that even The Sopranos invoked the pronouncement for which Nietzsche is best known (at least to non-philosophers), “God is dead.”

Indeed, the case for Nietzsche is considerably stronger than the analogous one for Bergman. While there are no obvious alternative candidates to Nietzsche in the “most influential and widely parodied” contest (with the possible exception of Wittgenstein, who has been hugely influential--even among those who do not accept his view of philosophy-- and parodied at least once in a while), there is an obvious alternative to Bergman in the person of Alfred Hitchcock, whose work has influenced and been imitated, parodied, and otherwise sent up by admirers and acolytes from Mel Brooks and Jonathan Demme to Gus Van Sant and Brian de Palma.

Has there ever been a more recognizable filmmaker, one who combined artistic achievement so thoroughly with commercial success, and whose influence can be felt in such disparate movements and subgenres as film noir, French New Wave, thrillers, psychological dramas, espionage, romance, and horror films?

To see how “the case for Hitchcock” might be made, see the recent collection of essays on the range and influence of Hitchcock’s films, After Hitchcock: Influence, Imitation, and Intertextuality, edited by David Boyd and R. Barton Palmer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006).


In (what must have been) first grade, I had a teacher who read a story to the class in which the narrator tries to disabuse people of the notion that there are bears on Hemlock Mountain. Our teacher would read the line this way: “There are no bears on Hemlock Mountain!” I don’t know who wrote the story, how it ended, or what anyone else in class felt, but that “line reading” scared the hell out of me. It was my first encounter with irony, which is perhaps why I’ve never forgotten it.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Obscure Object of Desire

"Any effort in philosophy to make the obscure obvious is likely to be unappealing, for the penalty of failure is confusion while the reward of success is banality."--Nelson Goodman, The Structure of Appearance (1951), p. xv.

Mixed, Not Stirred

The American philosopher W.V. Quine (1908-2000) is widely regarded as one of the most influential and important philosophers of the twentieth century. In addition to its philosophical merits, Quine's work is written in a clean, admirably clear style. He once told an interviewer he tried to avoid “mutually conflicting etymological metaphors,” as in “stirring up tensions” and “it was at the height of the Depression.” What would Quine have made of this: "That January, for the second year in a row, the Byrds unveiled a sound that would spread like wildfire"? (from Riot on Sunset Strip by Domenic Priore [Jawbone Press, 2007])

Wake Us Before You Go-Go

At a gathering of Somerville College faculty and graduates in the mid-1980’s, three of its most celebrated alumna, Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, and Philippa Foot, performed an impromptu a capella version of the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.”

Honorable Intentions

In her book Intention (Blackwell, 1967) Anscombe said “the primitive sign of wanting is trying to get."

Professor Imbroglio

Anscombe opposed awarding former president Harry S Truman an honorary degree at Oxford because of his responsibility for dropping the atomic bomb, saying “If you honour Truman now, what Neros, what Genghis Khans, what Hitlers, what Stalins will you honour next?”

No Eve in Eden

Colin McGinn, the author of The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy, called Anscombe “an authentically terrifying woman.”

English Channeling

Stuart Hampshire described Anscombe’s classes at Oxford as “brooding séances.”

Glass Houses

"The example on which [F.H.] Bradley spends a good deal of time (do not commit adultery), is worth a little attention here. Used as it is as a criticism of [John Stuart] Mill, it may be thought to make a somewhat malicious allusion to Mill’s association with Harriet Taylor, at a time when her first husband was still alive. That would not be so bad if it were not for the grotesque hypocrisy involved in Bradley’s morally outraged posture on the subject. He may well have believed that Mill’s relations with Mrs. Taylor were literally adulterous, although this is now generally doubted. What is quite beyond doubt is that Bradley was himself an inveterate adulterer who for a long time spent a period each year with the wife of another man. His only moral achievement in this particular domain of human striving is that he managed to keep his misconduct from general notice. But it was not as champion of the principle 'do not be seen to commit adultery' that he strode forth so self-righteously against Mill.
--Anthony Quinton, Utilitarian Ethics (St. Martin’s, 1973), p. 96

The Way We Weren't

When Herman Melville encountered Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice “Trust men, and they will be true to you,” the truculent author of Moby-Dick wrote in the margin of his copy of Emerson’s Essays, “God help the poor fellow who squares his life according to this.”
(See Andrew Delbanco, "The Great White Whale," The New Republic, September 30, 2002, p. 36)

The Riddle of Consciousness

Nietzsche asked how is it that consciousness, which emerges from and supervenes on the brain, is not reducible to the brain? “Only a handful of philosophers can contemplate this riddle for more than five minutes without going mad.”
SS: And one fewer than he realized.

Fashionable Nihilism

“Every night Samuel Beckett goes home to his wife, whom he’s lived with all these years; he lies down in bed with her, puts his arms around her, and says, ‘No meaning again today . . .’ Critics can say, and do say, well, it doesn’t matter what he says, it’s how well he says it. But I think in the long run Beckett is in for it. Because great writers tell the truth exactly – and get it right.” --John Gardner interview in The Writer's Chapbook, ed. George Plimpton (Modern Library, 1999), p. 36.

Faith, Hope, and Clarity

“I find it difficult to excite myself very much over right and wrong in practice. I have, e.g., no clear idea of what people have in mind when they say that they labour under a sense of sin; . . . A healthy appetite for righteousness, kept in due control by good manners, is an excellent thing; but to ‘hunger and thirst after’ it is often merely a symptom of spiritual diabetes.”--C.D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory (1930), paperback edition (Littlefield, Adams, 1959), p. 2.

Torn Confession

“The criticism which most perturbs me is that my book [The Perfectibility of Man (Scribners, 1970)] encourages complacency, contentment with things as they are, by suggesting that any sort of enthusiasm, any attempt to encourage men to pass beyond the every-day limits of their life, is automatically to be condemned. I confess myself torn on this point.” --John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man, second edition, pp. 7-8.

Creature Feature

“[An] aspect [of proper humility] . . . is a kind of self-acceptance. This involves acknowledging, in more than a merely intellectual way, that we are the sort of creatures that we are.” --Thomas E. Hill, Jr., "Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments," Environmental Ethics 5 (1983).
SS: Does Hill's view invite a Russellian riposte that only a fool would not acknowledge that it is the sort of creature that it is?

The Fly

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein's interlocutor asks: “What is your aim in philosophy?” and Wittgenstein answers: “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. Elizabeth Anscombe [Manmillan, 1953])

Fly and the Fly-Bottle

"Wittgenstein very fittingly compares a certain type of philosopher with a fly in a bottle, going on and on, buzzing about. And he says it is the task of his philosophy to show the fly the way out of the bottle. But I think it is Wittgenstein himself who is in the bottle and never finds his way out of it; and I certainly don’t think he has shown anybody else the way out."
--Karl Popper (1902-1994), author of The Logic of Scientific Discovery and The Open Society and Its Enemies. (Quoted from Modern British Philosophy, edited by Bryan Magee [St. Martin's Press, 1971])

Forbidden Planet

G.E. Moore (1873-1958) invites us to imagine two worlds, one with “mountains, rivers, the sea; trees and sunsets, stars and moon . . . all combined in the most exquisite proportion,” and the other as “one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us . . . without one redeeming feature.” Moore said it would be better that the former rather than the latter world exist, even if there were no possibility that it would ever be experienced by any human being.

A Man's Free Worship

Seeking to illustrate the vagaries of religious belief, Bertrand Russell used the example of the hypothesis that there is a china teapot in its own orbit around the sun.

Don't Look Back

Russell said it is logically possible that the world came into existence five minutes ago, with a population that “remembered” an entirely unreal past.

Schopenhauer's Gift

During the 1820’s, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) approached an English publisher about translating Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Schopenhauer, who had a mastery of Kant’s work and whose good English was complemented by a superb literary style, was turned down. “One can only speculate,” writes Christopher Janaway,” how the history of ideas would have been affected had he succeeded in making Kant more accessible to the English-speaking world at this comparatively early date.”
(Quote from Christopher Janaway, Schopenhauer [Viking, 1994], p. 10)

Schopenhauer's Joke

"There is even a comic side to seeing innumerable individuals of whom each regards himself alone as real, at any rate from a practical point of view, and all others to a certain extent as mere phantoms."
--Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality (1841), trans. E.F.J. Payne (Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), p. 132.

Wrongs and Harms

Kant said the mistake of identifying all moral wrongs with moral harms and reducing all moral harms to pain leads to the failure to honor dignity and to do justice--as if we do not wrong a person if we betray him without his knowledge or subsequent suffering.

Engineer of Souls

Kant said out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing truly straight can be built.


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), among the greatest philosophers of the modern era and author of The Critique of Pure Reason, lived a life of remarkable order and regularity. It is said that the people of Konigsberg, where Kant spent his entire life, could set their clocks by his daily walks through the town.

Why the Baloney Fears the Slicer

The Australian philosopher David Stove once devised a competition to discover the world's worst argument. The winning entry was to be determined not only by its intrinsic worthlessness, but also by the degree to which the argument had been accepted by philosophers and the extent to which it had escaped criticism. Can anybody identify Stove's leading candidate?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Plato's Footsteps

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), author of Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas characterized the European philosophical tradition as “a series of footnotes to Plato.”

When Worlds Collide

Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989) said that philosophers face the problem of reconciling two complex pictures of man-in-the-world, each of which purports to be complete, and which, after separate scrutiny, they must fuse into one view.

Style Council

Avishai Margalit said there are two styles of philosophers—i.e. philosophers and e.g. philosophers, explicators and illustrators, those who trust definitions and general principles and those who trust striking examples. This characterization gives rise to something of a paradox, for Margalit relies upon a general definition to identify this distinction between styles of philosopher, not something one would expect from someone who considers himself, and brilliantly models the style of, an e.g. philosopher--that is, one who trusts striking examples.

The Joker is Void

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was an oft-described genius whose investigations into thought and language (“a cloud of philosophy can be condensed into a drop of grammar”) produced a great upheaval in contemporary philosophy. He once expressed the view that a serious work in philosophy could consist entirely of jokes.
Common experience confirms Wittgenstein’s view that the explanation of the joke does not lie in its being the outcome of a special “inner process.” In Wittgenstein’s words: “Who among us has not spent days in the company of brilliant comic entertainers and not sensed feelings of emptiness? Hilarious jokes in the hands of a gifted comedic actor can conceal a void within the comedian himself, where there should be laughter and light.”

Chronicles of Wasted Time

Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, was a fly in the ointment of orthodoxy and tradition, a bat in the belfry of the church of received opinion. Unable to secure an academic position, he holed up in his neighbor's attic in Cambridge, Massachusetts to avoid creditors while he composed brilliant essays which he published in obscure journals. He wound up repudiating the pragmatism of William James, whose limp methodology and spiritualist-saturated lectures and essays so infuriated Peirce that he added an extra syllable to the name of the doctrine he had invented, calling it "Pragmaticism”--a view so ugly sounding, Peirce wrote, as to render it safe from kidnappers.