Casey Cep, “Why Are Americans Still Uncomfortable with Atheism?” - newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/29/why-are-americans-still-uncomfortable-with-atheism. This is a review of two recent books, Moore and Kramnick’s Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life, and John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism. The latter provides a much needed contextualization of contemporary debates. It builds bridges between intellectual traditions of atheism and wider theological debate about the application of the category of existence or being to God.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 172-73 (towards the end of chapter 35). This is one of Ishmael’s narrative asides in the context of a discussion of long hours on lookout atop the Pequod’s crow’s nest. I read through this book this year after hearing a discussion of its contemporary relevance on In Our Time, bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09gzjm5. I was amazed to read Melville shift from a detailed discussion of nineteenth century whaling to his philosophical reflections on pantheist mysticism and Cartesian certainty. This passage often comes to mind while walking the hills of Newcastle.
Alan Taylor, “Browsing the Stacks: A Photo Appreciation of Libraries” - theatlantic.com/photo/2018/10/a-photo-appreciation-of-libraries/573811/. Number eight is the reading room of Melbourne’s State Library of Victoria. Seattle’s Public Library designed by Rem Koolhaas is twenty-four.
A beautiful interactive timeline of philosophical ideas has been created by a communications designer. It’s an homage to the genre found at informationisbeautiful, but tailored to philosophy. Like any map, decisions had to be made about what to leave in and out. It’s as valuable for its sophistication as it is for its reductions and oversights. In any case, well worth playing with regarding your favorite philosophers. The snapshot here captures the section from Kant to Schopenhauer.
Lapham’s Quarterly Podcast - laphamsquarterly.org/content/animal-minds. Excellent summary of recent discoveries about animal minds. It seems to me that philosophy of language could help sharpen the debate about the nature of animal linguistic capacities in particular. Moreover, while the podcast presents a challenge to religion and science, much work has already been done to bridge the gap, for instance, Sarah Coakley and Martin Nowak’s Evolution, Games and God: The Principle of Cooperation.
Just after delivering this line the Foxtrot outpost guard dances one of the most hauntingly beautiful improvisations of the film’s many homages to the genre. The vast desert surrounds a rickety ice cream truck nearby. Its faded paint still displays the gleaming smile of a sixties era advertisement. The guard’s gun whirls the part of his partner as the camel plods into the distance. The film is worth watching just for this scene at around minute thirty-seven. Towards the end, the father of another guard reiterates the theme: “There’s a dance that goes like this… No matter where you go you always end up at the same point…” He begins to shuffle around a square of his kitchen before Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror) plays over the film’s denouement. Foxtrot provides witty meditations on the pointlessness of suffering and violence. Although not cited, it echoes the Hebrew bible’s Job. That book also dances through a series of discourses to end where it began, more or less. There’s a metaphor toward the end where “terror dances” before Leviathan (the Hebrew word for dance here is דּוּץ/duwts 41.22). It’s hard not to risk an anachronism and picture Job shuffling through the foxtrot. For a recent bestselling philosophical account of Israeli politics today there is Micah Goodman’s Catch-57. It was recently reviewed at the Tablet here.
James Ryerson, “Unpublished and Untenured, a Philosopher Inspired a Cult Following,” nytimes.com/2018/09/26/books/review/irad-kimhi-thinking-and-being.html. Interesting brief review of Irad Kimhi’s long awaited book, Thinking and Being.
“Your Time Is Going to Come.“ - laphamsquarterly.org/deja-vu/your-time-going-come. Interesting juxtaposition of historical figures outlined here. Nicholas Kristof made a similar connection last year. In a course on World Religions, I teach a week on Philo of Alexandria, as part of the introduction to early Jewish thought and practice. Philo is thought to be the progenitor of the term Judaism (Ioudiasmos) in his explication of Jewish custom for a hellenistic context. His ideas also impacted early Jewish Christian relations. In any case, Philo’s “On the Embassy to Gaius” is a page turner from the first century. He actually met Gaius Caligula to plead the case to restore the citizenship rights of the Jewish people in Alexandria. They had been given such rights by the Ptolomies after Alexander the Great founded the city, which were later affirmed by Augustus Caesar in 1 BCE. They were then stricken by the city’s prefect Flaccus, who sought to curry favor with Caligula who wished to be worshiped as a god. Severe persecution followed, as it usually does when human beings lose their legal standing. In any case, things did not go well for Philo’s delegation. There is a haunting line toward the end of his essay, which has always stayed with me. “And when a judge invested with such mighty power begins to reproach the person who is on his trial before him it is necessary to be silent; for it is possible even to defend one's self in silence, and especially for people who are able to make no reply on any of the subjects which he was not investigating and desiring to understand, inasmuch as our laws and our customs restrained our tongues, and shut and sewed up our mouths” (360). Nonetheless, in the next sentences Philo tries to respond to Caligula’s “very solemn and important question ‘why do you abstain from eating pig’s flesh?’” Yes, Philo is being ironic. As he sought a serious consultation about Jewish citizenship rights, Caligula wanted to debate the merits of eating pork. Philo narrates his best attempt to draw attention to the broader issue of justice, which was not about the specifics of pork’s tastiness, but the right to eat according to one’s customs. A rather fraught issue we struggle with to this day, as Will Kymlicka outlines helpfully in his Multicultural Citizenship. As it happens, Caligula admitted he was not a fan of lamb saying, “it is not nice,” before bursting into another room to order that glass pebbles be placed in open windows (an early glass making technique). Mireille Hades-Lebel, in her excellent treatise Philo of Alexandria: A Thinker in the Jewish Diaspora, questions whether Philo’s hellenism amounted to a monologue rather than dialogue with his Graeco-Roman interlocutors (p. 68). When reading Philo’s account of the specific case of Caligula, one wonders whether dialogue is possible with narcissists.
Katherine Stewart, “Whose Religious Liberty Is It Anyway?” - nytimes.com/2018/09/08/opinion/kavanaugh-supreme-court-religious-liberty.html. This is a helpful summary of what is at stake in current debate in the United States (and Australia) concerning religious liberty. As the author here is clear, what is meant by “‘religious liberty’ is its opposite.” The aim of its proponents is to foster the rise of religious discrimination of a variety of sorts by religious people against other differing sects, as well as non-religiously affiliated people who don’t fit key racial, gender and/or other categories. It seems to me that disagreement on the basis of religious belief in democratic societies does not entitle people to deny their fellow citizens equal dignity under the law. This implies both that we develop the capacity to discuss religious viewpoints in more rigorous ways, as well as that we do so fully acknowledging the fact of plurality.
David Auerbach, "Deleting the Digital Name of God." - tabletmag.com/scroll/269413/deleting-the-digital-name-of-god. Interesting brief summary of debates about disposal of sacred digital texts in Jewish thought. Hashem is the Hebrew term which literally translates as "the name" and is typically read in place of the tetragrammaton or other name for God in a given text. Much depends on how the technology displays the name it seems. An unmentioned complication is that parts of the Cairo geniza cited above have been digitized. For instance, scholars at the University of Manchester recently collaborated with the Rylands Library collections. Details on the project and many of its 15,000 fragments can be viewed here. The Rylands library museum also displays a number of Torah scrolls where the name of God has been carefully cut out of the text in order to desacralize them. For those interested in the wider practice of ritual disposal across religious traditions, a helpful monograph on the subject can be found here: The Death of Sacred Texts: Ritual Disposal and Renovation of Texts in World Religions.
Narrator (Willem Dafoe), Mountain - madmanfilms.com.au/mountain/. This is a snippet of the transcript from the film now available on wider release in iTunes. It was performed live at a number of venues last year by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Having seen it in Newcastle, I was struck by its use of the Enlightenment era concept of the sublime quoted above. One of the sublime's notable definitions occurred in Immanuel Kant's 1790 Critique of the Power of Judgment, much cited to this day for its influence upon later aesthetics. While perusing the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia some years ago I was similarly struck by Airan Kang's The Critique of Judgment 2010, which quotes Kant's work through a digital stack of books. The excerpt is from § 23: "For the beautiful is directly attended with a feeling of the furtherance of life, and is thus compatible with charms and a playful imagination." I've also been writing on later thinkers such as Jacques Derrida's reflections on Truth in Painting. Derrida particularly questioned whether Kantian sublimity locked beauty too much away into the interiority of human subjectivity. For instance, at another point in § 23, Kant wrote, “All that we can say is that the object lends itself to the presentation of a sublimity discoverable in the mind.” Much more could be said here about the human capacity to experience beauty and transcendence, but the sentiments were echoed time and again in the film. "Because the mountains we climb are not made only of rock and ice but also dreams and desire. The mountains we climb are mountains of the mind." If you've ever wondered what is happening when music and art make your spine tingle, then consider Kant's sublime. If you've forgotten what that feels like, then take a moment to watch this film.
Beth Preston, "Artifact," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - plato.stanford.edu/entries/artifact/. This is a helpful and newly revised introductory summary of gaps in philosophical studies of the artifactual nature of human life. My last book Writing Faith, sought to go some way in charting new directions in this field with reference to the history of religious books.
Maria O'Hara, "Bad Dewey," - goldsmithslibraryblog.wordpress.com/2018/07/04/bad-dewey/. Brief comment on Melvil Dewey's system for organizing books (not to be confused with the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey).
Johann [Bobby Sommer], Museum Hours - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2268732/. This is a quote from a slow and rather moving film. It shows wondering, wandering people flowing through lives that at any moment can become curated artworks. It seems to ask the viewer to take the time to cultivate the eyes to see. Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum is as important a character as the actors. The film features a number of captivating renaissance Bruegel the Elder paintings from the museum's exhibitions. A chronological list of his paintings can be found here and the Kunsthistorisches Museum can be virtually explored here. Breugel's paintings of sixteenth century Dutch crowds are, for me, a precursory to Manchester's twentieth century urban artist, L.S. Lowry. IMDB summarizes the film this way: "When a Vienna museum guard befriends an enigmatic visitor, the grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum becomes a mysterious crossroads that sparks explorations of their lives, the city, and the ways in which works of art reflect and shape the world."
Jim Holt, "Lovers of Wisdom" - nybooks.com/articles/2018/07/19/lovers-of-wisdom-laertius-philosophers/. Interesting summary of a recent translation of Diogenes Laertius's third century CE Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Laertius is not to be confused with the fourth century BCE Diogenes summarized above. But his account of past philosophers nonetheless continues to inspire us "to ponder what some future Diogenes Laertius might make of the present philosophical era. Which figures would strike him as models for living? Whose dramatic public gestures, whose devastating coruscations would he record? Who would strike him as a 'philosopher' in the original Pythagorean sense: a lover of wisdom?"