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.

On Quantifying Introspection

And with this, we could analyze the history of introspection in the ancient Greek tradition, for which we have the best available written record. So what we did is we took all the books — we just ordered them by time — for each book we take the words and we project them to the space, and then we ask for each word how close it is to introspection, and we just average that. And then we ask whether, as time goes on and on, these books get closer, and closer and closer to the concept of introspection. And this is exactly what happens in the ancient Greek tradition. So you can see that for the oldest books in the Homeric tradition, there is a small increase with books getting closer to introspection. But about four centuries before Christ, this starts ramping up very rapidly to an almost five-fold increase of books getting closer, and closer and closer to the concept of introspection. And one of the nice things about this is that now we can ask whether this is also true in a different, independent tradition.

Mariano Sigman, "Your Words May Predict Your Future Mental Health," Ted Talks - http://bit.ly/1OVoyXv. This is an interesting application of digital techniques to ancient texts, and with startling implications for contemporary life.

On Incentives

Today’s philosophers are used to dancing to the tune of the Research Excellence Framework (Ref). They have to publish their articles in reputable journals and their books with university presses. They have to generate impact and contribute to their research environment. But how would the great philosophers of the past have fared under this system? Surely if they were truly great then they would have done well? Not necessarily... Ultimately, then, we can say that Leibniz probably would have thrived if the Ref had existed in his day, and in fact would have been a Ref superstar. But the irony, of course, is that he (and all of the other great philosophers) managed to achieve all that he did without the incentive provided by the Ref.

"Which Philosopher Would Fare Best in a Present-day University," The Guardian - http://bit.ly/24Yzbwz

On Predictability

Customi­sa­tion means having the world adapting to what we need, want, expect, fear, desire, hope, or wish. It is nice and enticing to receive the right discount, at the right time, for the right goods we are plan­ning to buy anyway. And recom­men­da­tions based on our inter­ests are better than random ones, based on anyone’s taste. The risk, however, is that our digital tech­nolo­gies may easily become defining tech­nolo­gies rather than mere iden­ti­fying ones... No wonder we become predictable: we have been made predictable. Nor do our tech­nolo­gies have any interest in our devel­op­ments and trans­for­ma­tions: quite the oppo­site. They would like to see a customer who likes some­thing to keep liking that some­thing and anything else that is similar to that some­thing. Cats lovers turning at most into kittens lovers, not dogs lovers. Amazon’s recom­men­da­tion system can only rein­force choices and tastes and make them more stable, and more predictable. So do the ‘smart’ algo­rithms behind the news­feeds of Face­book and Insta­gram. Our malleability is used to give ourselves a perma­nent shape not to enable us to change shape.

Luciano Floridi, "The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy" - http://www.schirn.de/en/magazine/context/the_self_fulfilling_prophesy/

On Aristotle and Trolling

What the troll is, and in what way he trolls and for what, has now been said. And it is clear from this that there can be trolling outside the internet. For every community of speakers holds certain goods in common, and with them the conversation [dialegesthai] as an end in itself; and the troll is one who seeks to damage it from within. So a questioner can troll a political meeting, and academics troll each other in committees when they are bored; and a newspaper columnist may be a profit-troll towards a whole city. But blogs and boards and forums and comments sections are where the troll dwells primarily and for the most part. For these are weak communities, and anyone may be part of them: and so their good is easily destroyed. Hence the saying, ‘Trolls not to be fed’. But though everyone knows this, everyone does it; for the desire to be right on the internet is natural and present to all.

Rachel Barney, "[Aristotle] On Trolling," Journal of the American Philosophical Associationhttp://bit.ly/1TMuXA4

On Thinking Animals

As de waal recognizes, a better way to think about other creatures would be to ask ourselves how different species have developed different kinds of minds to solve different adaptive problems. Surely the important question is not whether an octopus or a crow can do the same things a human can, but how those animals solve the cognitive problems they face, like how to imitate the sea floor or make a tool with their beak. Children and chimps and crows and octopuses are ultimately so interesting not because they are mini-mes, but because they are aliens—not because they are smart like us, but because they are smart in ways we haven’t even considered.

"How Animals Think" - http://theatln.tc/23D8MSv

On Wordprocessing

Plenty of writers balked at the joys of word processing, for a host of reasons. Overwriting, in their view, became too easy; the labor of revision became undervalued, and noisy printers and plugged-in gadgets the norm. When Gore Vidal wrote in the mid-1980s that the ‘word processor is erasing literature,’ he expressed an uneasiness about technology’s proximity to creative writing (and the wider field of publishing) that persists. This too is the literary history of word processing, a snapshot of dread about gadget love, the seduction of the screen, and automation and the threats they pose to writers. This dread has taken various forms over the years. It lurks in the background of Sven Birkerts’s late-1990s jeremiads against the Web and Leon Wieseltier’s 2015 diatribe about what distraction was doing to the contemplative mind (and, by extension, the writer). Paradoxically, much of the hand-wringing over digital-era distraction as a mortal enemy to thinking has given rise to apps: Scrivener, or WriteRoom, or Write or Die, the last an online editor that promotes concentration by erasing your text if you pause too long between keystrokes.