On Habermas

Unlike Kant, Habermas is a thinker of late modernity; he no longer subscribes to the lofty belief in philosophy as the ‘queen of the sciences.’ Instead, as a critical theorist in the tradition of his teachers, he embraces a conception of ‘post-metaphysical thinking’ that sustains an alliance with the rest of the human sciences and remains responsive to its own social-historical context. Although genuinely metaphysical knowledge is no longer the rightful province of philosophical speculation, Habermas still cleaves in his own way to what Adorno once called ‘metaphysics at the moment of its fall.’ In our capacity for rational communication and in our appeal to a morality that leaves no one behind, there lies (in Habermas’s phrase) ‘a moment of unconditionality.’ While it lacks the prestige of a metaphysical absolute, it still bears a trace of the older idealism. Habermas calls it ‘an absolute that has become fluid as a critical procedure.’ Mundane reason, in other words, isn’t wholly mundane: In its modest commitment to rational argumentation, it keeps alive the universalizing impulse of the monotheistic religions when it strives to break free of its own conditions and ‘points beyond all particular forms of life.’

Peter Gordon, "A Lion in Winter," - https://www.thenation.com/article/a-lion-in-winter/. Interesting review of a recent biography of Jürgen Habermas.

On Teaching Critical Thinking

I believe that the problem is not what is taught in schools, but how it is taught. It is not enough to simply offer curriculum about the ills of racism, homophobia, or bullying, and then expect lasting results from students who are entrenched in cultural beliefs that are reinforced by society. How can it be a surprise that a number of Americans lean toward authoritarian ideals when, according to Marzano Learning Sciences Center, an educational consulting and research group located in West Palm Beach, Florida, 58 percent of class time in K-12 schools is used for lecture with the teacher delivering content? Or that a number of Americans choose to ignore facts and reason when only 6 percent of class time is used for cognitively complex tasks? In a 2012 Center for American Progress student survey, one third of American 12th-graders said they engaged in class discussions only two times a month or less, suggesting that the majority of 17- and 18-year-old American public-school students (young adults coming upon voting age) rarely spend time engaging in dialogue during the school day. The current state of American politics is not surprising when the country’s youngest citizens are given few opportunities to engage in critical thinking and discussion. In order to counteract these trends, it is essential for educators to provide exploratory opportunities for students to not only think about the experiences of other people, but to also challenge their own inherent belief systems through experiential learning.

"Can Morality Be Taught?" - http://theatln.tc/2cXUKst

On Lo and Behold

I deeply regret the fact that deep critical thinking and imaginative thinking, creative thinking, is lost. In my opinion computers, and in some sense the internet, are the worst enemy of deep critical thinking. Youth of today are using machines to basically replace their examination of the things they are observing. They don’t understand what they’re looking at or what they’re hearing, or what they’re learning. They depend upon the internet to tell them and decipher it. They look at numbers instead of ideas. They fail to understand concepts and this is a problem... Whether we use science or ancient Greek or philosophy, it’s those tools that are important. Those are the things that people are going to be able to use in the future. The actual information that we learn in school won’t be important. Because it will be dwarfed by the information that’s coming out on the internet every single day.
— Chapter IX. The Internet of Me
Have the monks stopped meditating? They all seem to be tweeting.

Werner Herzog, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World - http://www.loandbeholdfilm.com. This is an interesting commentary on digital life today by a masterful documentary film maker. This chapter in the film focuses on the need to rethink education, shifting it to analytical and critical thinking skills.

On Gutenberg

And so, though he had not invented movable type, if Gutenberg is to be credited with anything it must be that he made it work—that aided by the comparatively economical Latin alphabet he systematically tackled each aspect of a finicky, delicate process until he had perfected it. If calligraphic ink did not meet his needs, he would look elsewhere; if embossed characters were too costly to cut individually, he would find a way to produce them in bulk; and if a firm hand was necessary to get the best impression of the printed page, he would choose tools and materials that could withstand that pressure. Johannes Gutenberg was not the father of printing so much as its midwife.

Keith Houstan, "The Prints and the Pauper" - http://ilovetypography.com/?p=19968

On Bayle's Tolerance

It is easy to see why many of Bayle’s readers thought that he was only pretending to believe in God. Could such a merciless critic of religious reasoning really have been pious in private, or was he feigning faith? It is impossible to tell. Besides, there is a third possibility. Perhaps sometimes he believed, and sometimes he didn’t. One reason why he was such a peerless dialectician is that he was good at seeing both sides of an argument. Intellectual modesty was the virtue that Bayle preached most often, which is why he was held up as a hero by the 18th-century philosophes... However, if any set of values counts as typical of the Enlightenment, they are tolerance, intellectual caution, the questioning of authority and the disentangling of morality from religion. If anyone deserves credit for promoting these values with unparalleled vigour, it is Pierre Bayle. It is a pity that he turned out not to be immortal, because the battle for them can hardly be described as won.

"The Tolerant Philosopher: Why Pierre Bayle is the Forgotten Figure of the Enlightenment" - http://www.newstatesman.com/node/303786

On Occam's Razor

Occam’s razor was never meant for paring nature down to some beautiful, parsimonious core of truth. Because science is so difficult and messy, the allure of a philosophical tool for clearing a path or pruning the thickets is obvious. In their readiness to find spurious applications of Occam’s razor in the history of science, or to enlist, dismiss, or reshape the razor at will to shore up their preferences, scientists reveal their seduction by this vision. But they should resist it. The value of keeping assumptions to a minimum is cognitive, not ontological: It helps you to think. A theory is not ‘better’ if it is simpler—but it might well be more useful, and that counts for much more.

"The Tyranny of Simple Explanations" - http://theatln.tc/2bxsMEi. It is interesting that the closest thing to Occam's razor found in Occam's actual works is cited in this article as follows: “It is futile to do with more what can be done with fewer" (Summa Logicae, 1323).

On the Talmud

Clearly, each of these scenarios is more far-fetched than the last. The rabbis are trying to save appearances, to preserve an internally incoherent law, no matter what logical contortions are required. The Gemara never does seem to settle on just one explanation for how an ox could ever become forewarned with regard to people, and the proliferation of arguments from different rabbis is a sign that perhaps no satisfying answer is available. In the attempt to make the biblical law clearer and more useful, the Talmud has instead created a new series of difficulties. This dynamic is one reason the process of interpreting and codifying Jewish law is open-ended: The Talmud is not the end of argument, but the beginning.

On Goethe

Robertson’s final chapter turns to religion. Raised a Protestant, Goethe retained a soft spot for Luther’s Bible. At heightened moments he tended to recycle its phrases and imagery. Yet many of the outward manifestations of Christianity filled him with loathing. He abhorred the sight of crucifixes and the sound of church bells. By contrast, he inclined sympathetically towards Judaism and Islam, which refrain from depicting the deity in visual terms... This enduring commitment to striving, so often taken as the key to Faust’s career, is perhaps best viewed as the inevitable legacy of the Enlightenment. Its value is thrown into question by the multiple murders, brute thuggery, land-grabbing and summary evictions in which he was complicit, along with the invention of capitalism through the creation of paper money and the use of slave labour in a colonial context. Readers of The Essential Goethe may judge for themselves to what extent the early Faust foreshadows twentieth-century brutalities. If his trajectory should be followed by purification and transfiguration, that would surely be, as Gandhi is reported to have remarked of European civilization, a good idea.

On Bonhoeffer's Anti-Judaism

On 2 July 2000, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority, deferred action on the petition to have Dietrich Bonhoeffer named a righteous gentile. My contention is that critics of this decision conceal a more pernicious difficulty that arises in Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran legacy. David Nirenberg’s recent Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, demonstrates the history and development of such categories with particular attention to Luther. What goes unnoticed is the ongoing operations of anti-Judaism in later theologians such as Bonhoeffer. Although Bonhoeffer may not have been anti-Semitic, the degree to which his theology remained bound to centuries old anti-Judaism is another matter.

Timothy Stanley, "Bonhoeffer's Anti-Judaism," Political Theology - http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10773525.2016.1187000. This is the abstract from an article I wrote for Political Theology that is now available in volume 17, issue 3. The premise is focused on Bonhoeffer, but is equally applicable to other Christian thinkers of the time, such as Barth.

Reading Religion Review

Stanley’s Ricoeurain critique of Habermas sheds light on why this volume itself resists ‘integrating’ the diverse and at times conflicting voices that it includes. The work’s task, as Stanley notes, is neither to ‘settle’ the question of religion and the (post-)secular, nor to predict their futures. Rather, it presents a welcome invitation to wade patiently through the unsettling muddiness of the debate itself, relinquishing any imminent prospect of coming unstuck. The work addresses itself, therefore, not to a bounded ‘postsecular’ but to the uncertain space that comes ‘after secularization’ in academic theory.

Stephanie Wright, "Review of Religion after Secularisation in Australia," New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, September 2015. 256 pages. - http://readingreligion.org/books/religion-after-secularization-australia. This is a new review site hosted by the American Academy of Religion. They very perceptively reviewed this recent edited volume. 

On Locke's Religious Self

An analytic study of the theory of religion benefits from paying close attention to the concept of the self that emerges from it. This article applies this perspective in order to explore how John Locke, the renowned seventeenth-century British philosopher and a devoted Christian, perceived religion and religiosity. By studying Locke’s prodigious writings I identify the concept of self that Locke - knowingly and unknowingly - employs when trying to untangle the issues of religion. As a result, I introduce an added dimension of inquiry into Locke’s ideas about private and social religious faith and worship.

Vered Sakal, "Two Conceptions of Religious Self in Lockean Religiosity," The Journal of Religion - http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/686565

On Academic Freedom

In 2015, Harvard University Press began to publish the Murty Classical Library of India, a series of editions and translations of texts in a wide range of Indian languages, under the direction of Sheldon Pollock, professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University. In February, 2016, 132 academics in India petitioned to have Pollock removed as general editor. They were raising their voices not as subject experts — many were scientists or doctors lacking competence to judge humanistic scholarship — but as Hindus. Why did Hindus in India care what a publisher in Massachusetts was doing? Because Hindus in America cared, and they had sent word to India to raise the alarm there, too. This attempt by faith-based groups to control what scholars say is symptomatic of a broader clash between pious and academic ways of talking about religion, which has also troubled scholars who write and teach about religions other than Hinduism, and threatens freedom of speech in America, India, and elsewhere.

Wendy Doniger, "The Repression of Religious Studies" - http://chronicle.com/article/The-Repression-of-Religious/236166

On Ancient Technology

Early researchers suspected right away that the Antikythera Mechanism was a mechanical sky chart of sorts—a machine that seemed to predict the position of celestial bodies, phases of the moon, and the timing of eclipses. But its mere existence was wildly anachronistic. The mechanism dated to around 200 B.C., yet nothing approaching its workmanship would reappear in history until the first mechanical astronomical clocks were built in Europe, some 1,500 years later... In the past decade, 3D scanning technology has helped reveal the inner workings of the device—including a set of interlocking gears—and an intricate set of inscriptions on the mechanism. Now, for the first time in the century since the Antikythera Mechanism was pulled from the sea, an international team of researchers has translated a significant portion of the text inscribed on the device... ‘So these very small texts are a very big thing for us.’ Big enough to determine that the mechanism was, Jones says, something of a ‘philosopher’s instructional device,’ and the text itself was a guide to reading it.

"The Most Mysterious Object in the History of Technology" - http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/06/antikythera-mechanism-whoa/487832/ 

On Technology and Humanities

Getting a humanities Ph.D. is the most deterministic path you can find to becoming exceptional in the industry. It is no longer just engineers who dominate our technology leadership, because it is no longer the case that computers are so mysterious that only engineers can understand what they are capable of. There is an industrywide shift toward more ‘product thinking’ in leadership—leaders who understand the social and cultural contexts in which our technologies are deployed.

Damon Horowitz, "From Technologist to Philosopher" - http://chronicle.com/article/From-Technologist-to/128231/. See also his Ted talk "Why We Need a Moral Operating System," and Tristan Harris's more recent talk, "How Better Tech Could Protect Us from Distraction." Stanford's Biblio Tech and more longstanding Humanities Lab are two academic programs that seem to be doing this well.

On Liberal Arts + Skills

The knock that liberal-arts graduates can have a tough time landing a first job is borne out by the data. Yet a new analysis of help-wanted postings for entry-level jobs suggests that those graduates can improve their job prospects markedly by acquiring a small level of proficiency in one of eight specific skill sets, such as social media or data analysis. In most cases, those skills increase salary prospects markedly, as well...Jobs for graduates with computer-programming skills paid nearly $18,000 more, and there were nearly 53,000 more of them.

"Liberal-Arts Majors Have Plenty of Job Prospects If They Have Some Specific Skills Too" -http://chronicle.com/article/Liberal-Arts-Majors-Have/236749

On Rousseau

Rousseau transformed our understanding of many aspects of life. Three or four year ago the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur produced a special edition on Rousseau and on the front cover it made the following claims for Rousseau: he invented the child, nature, equality, democracy, and the cult of the self. Those are big claims for Rousseau, but they’re not entirely crazy. He made a difference to how we think about all of those things: about our own subjectivity, about politics, about equality. For the range of contribution and impact on Western intellectual culture, Rousseau is a big figure. He’s still a big figure, more than 300 years after his birth.

"Chris Bertram Recommends the Best Books on Rousseau," -  http://fivebooks.com/interview/christopher-bertram-jean-jacques-rousseau/

On an Infinite Book

But there is a check on all of this anxiety about information collection and Borgesian libraries. The threat that human knowledge will be lost—either through destruction, or by dilution due to sheer scale—is still the dominant cultural narrative about libraries, real and imagined. The Library of Alexandria, often described as a physical embodiment of the heart and mind of the ancient world, is so famous today in part because it was destroyed. In The Book of Sand, Borges describes an infinite book that nearly drives the narrator mad before he resolves to get rid of it. ‘I thought of fire, but I feared that the burning of an infinite book might likewise prove infinite and suffocate the planet with smoke,’ he writes. Instead, he opts to ‘hide a leaf in the forest’ and sets off for the Argentine National Library with the bizarre volume.

"The Human Fear of total Knowledge" - http://theatln.tc/1UnzLfu

On Hail Caesar!

-Hollywood Fixer: “Now Hail Caesar! is a prestige picture, our biggest release of the year and we’re devoting huge resources to its production in order to make it first-class in every respect. Gentlemen, given its enormous expense, we don’t want to send it to market except in the certainty that it will not offend any reasonable American regardless of faith or creed. Now that’s where you come in. You’ve read the script. We want to know if the theological elements of the story are up to snuff.... I’m not sure I follow, Padre.
-Rabbi: Young man, you don’t follow for a very simple reason. These men are screwballs. God has children? What, and a dog? A collie maybe? God doesn’t have children. He’s a bachelor. And very angry.
-Catholic Clergyman: No, no. He used to be angry!
-Rabbi: What, he got over it?
-Protestant Clergyman: You worship the God of another age!
-Catholic Clergyman: Who has no love!
-Rabbi: Not true! He likes Jews.
-Protestant Clergyman: God loves everyone!
-Catholic Clergyman: God is love.
-Orthodox Clergyman: God is who is.
-Rabbi: This is special? Who isn’t who is?
-Catholic Clergyman: But how should God be rendered in a motion picture?
-Rabbi: God isn’t in the motion picture!
— Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, "Hail Caesar!" 2016.

Throughout the film the Coen's deftly juxtapose Hollywood's economic ideologies with the religious concern for idolatry. This scene provides a brief joke on religious aesthetics and metaphysics.

On Belief in Free Will

Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side... Philosophers and theologians are used to talking about free will as if it is either on or off; as if our consciousness floats, like a ghost, entirely above the causal chain, or as if we roll through life like a rock down a hill. But there might be another way of looking at human agency. Some scholars argue that we should think about freedom of choice in terms of our very real and sophisticated abilities to map out multiple potential responses to a particular situation. One of these is Bruce Waller, a philosophy professor at Youngstown State University. In his new book, Restorative Free Will, he writes that we should focus on our ability, in any given setting, to generate a wide range of options for ourselves, and to decide among them without external constraint.

Stephen Cave, "There's No Such Thing as Free Will: But We're Better of Believing In It Anyway" - http://theatln.tc/1soYWYZ

On Deliberative Systems

In the quest for a workable ideal of democracy, the systems approach has recently shifted its perspective on deliberative democratic theory. Instead of enquiring how institutionalized decision-making might mirror an ‘ideal deliberative procedure’, it asks how democracy might be construed as a ‘deliberative system’... This article argues that a deliberative system without a parliamentary legislature is tantamount to deliberation without democracy and that an elected parliamentary legislature is constitutive of democracy as a deliberative system – national or transnational. To substantiate this claim, the article suggests looking at Habermas’ discourse theory in a new light, as a sociological-reconstructive approach that aims to explicate the cognitive dimension of modern democratic decision-making.

Daniel Gaus, Discourse Theory’s Sociological Claim: Reconstructing the Epistemic Meaning of Democracy as a Deliberative System," Philosophy and Social Criticism - http://m.psc.sagepub.com/content/42/6/503.abstract?rss=1. Interesting article on deliberative democratic practices, especially in light of the rise of decisionistic politics today.