On Divided Attention
Price’s book about books reads like an anthology of ironies, including several that pertain directly to it. This book is self-consciously shaped by, and susceptible to, its own account of how we read now. Price takes divided attention for a virtue, and practically invites a reader to keep a device nearby to flesh out her examples. Almost every piece of data has its own story to tell. Perhaps more than any genre, nonfiction has been changed by the Internet, which turns a biography or a history book into a series of fascinating leads. Every reader brings her own curiosity to the printed text, and builds her own customized version out of adjacent or supplemental research... Though books have been mythologized as the one ‘non-database’ in a world of searchable content, readers have always ‘skipped and skimmed’ books, as Price points out, or rearranged them mentally, or composed their own tailored indexes for fast information retrieval. It is not unheard of to break a book’s binding and reorder its pages. I have a Latin lexicon from the seventeenth century, once owned by a clergyman. He essentially built his own search engine in it, affixing homemade calfskin tabs to its pages to mark the entries he consulted the most. Another copy of that book, with tabs in other spots, would be a different book. When a book sits next to the Internet, its authority as the final word on anything is automatically undermined.

Dan Chiasson, “Reader, I Googled It,” newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/02/reader-i-googled-it. An interesting review of Price’s recent, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading.

On Essentialization
I’m most interested in how science and religion came to be essentialised such that we can talk about there being a relationship between them. The standard view is to think that today we’ve got science and religion, and that these things, or something analogous to them, are perennial features of human cultures. On this view, we look at history to see what essential relationship there is between them. I think that’s totally mistaken. What we see happening in the West is the emergence of quite specific conceptions of religion during roughly the 17th century. The very idea of ‘religion’, then, is a distinctively modern, Western notion. ‘Science’ too, to some extent. Our present understanding of what science is is also something we see developing over time. It’s really only in the 19th century that we get our current conception of the natural sciences as constituting a coherent body of disciplines that share some essential features.

Peter Harrison, “The Best Books on the History of Science and Religion Recommended by Peter Harrison,” fivebooks.com/best-books/history-science-and-religion-peter-harrison/.

On Walking
Before the advent of scientific evidence and philosophical guidance on the subject, literary odes to the creative and health benefits of walking flourished... Writers from Petrarch to Franz Kafka to Will Self have recorded their enthusiasm for, in Minshull’s words, ‘ambling, rambling, tramping, trekking, stomping and striding.’ Higher-quality endorsements of the creative value of walking than these would be hard to find. Yet the more I read, the more questions this 21st-century renaissance of pedestrian evangelism raised in my mind. No, I haven’t lost my desire, Kierkegaard, but I think about my desire differently—and wish I didn’t.

Michael Lapointe, “The Unbearable Smugness of Walking,” theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/08/how-walking-became-pedestrian-duncan-minshull-erling-kagge-walking/592792/. I must admit to the benefits of peripatetic thinking. Very lucky to have Newcastle’s beaches for its particular joys of ambulation.

On Enlightenment Humor
For the Earl of Shaftesbury, to practice the comic spirit is to be easy, natural, flexible, and tolerant rather than stiff-necked and fanatical. Humor is a splendid palliative for ‘superstition and melancholy delusion.’ Satire, with its coarse belligerence, is a cultural residue of a more abrasive, agonistic world, and is now to be tempered by good humor and an irenic spirit, which spring from the genteel classes’ belief in their own inexhaustible benevolence. Men and women are to be seduced rather than censured into virtue, humored rather than harangued. As the historian Keith Thomas remarks, the early eighteenth century is a period when ‘humor grows kindly and...bizarre quirks of personality are not aberrations calling for satiric attack but amiable eccentricities to be savored and enjoyed.’ Hegel notes in his Philosophy of Fine Art that in modern comedy, imperfections and irregularities are objects of entertainment rather than disdain

Terry Eagleton, “The Politics of Humor,” - commonwealmagazine.org/whose-laughter-which-comedy

On Distractions
Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentration was their lifelong work! Their tech was obviously different from ours. But their anxiety about distraction was not. They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else. They were frustrated by their desire to stare out of the window, or to constantly check on the time (in their case, with the Sun as their clock), or to think about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God. They even worried about getting distracted in their dreams... John Cassian, whose thoughts about thinking influenced centuries of monks, knew this problem all too well... That was in the late 420s. If John Cassian had seen a smartphone, he’d have forecasted our cognitive crisis in a heartbeat.

Jamie Kreiner, “How to Reduce Digital Distractions: Advice from Medieval Monks” - aeon.co/ideas/how-to-reduce-digital-distractions-advice-from-medieval-monks

On Cooking Technology
Next book? Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life by Albert Borgmann, a philosopher who studied briefly under Heidegger. It was published 1984 and is definitely one of the foundational texts in philosophy of technology. Its chief contribution was to bring the focus on quality of life into the analysis. The point he was making in this book was that there are basically two types of paradigm to think about technology. On the one hand is the device paradigm: where all our experiences and daily life are somehow mediated by gadgets and technology. We heat our food in microwaves and use our heating systems to heat our house and listen to recorded music rather than going to concerts. The second, his normative idea, the one he wanted to be in, was the focal paradigm: and that was the real thing – like cooking your own food. His classic example of the device paradigm was buying frozen food in a supermarket, heating it in a microwave, and eating it while watching television. The good life and his alternative to that would be gathering the whole family and cooking your food on a stove, spending some time doing it and sitting down and conversing.

“The Best Books on Philosophy of Technology: Recommended by Evgeny Morozov” - fivebooks.com/best-books/evgeny-morozov-philosophy-technology/

On Ethical Animals
This gives us Kant’s fundamental principle of morality in two of its familiar formulations: act in such a way that you can will your principle as universal law; and treat all rational beings as ends and never merely as means. To treat others as ends in themselves is to regard the achievement of their goals or ends as good in itself, and not just for them. The practical upshot is that each of us has a strong reason to pursue our own ends in a way that does not interfere with the pursuit by others of their ends, and some reason to help them if they need help. But what does this imply about animals? In Kant’s view, we impose the moral law on ourselves: it applies to us because of our rational nature. The other animals, because they are not rational, cannot engage in this kind of self-legislation. Kant concluded that they are not part of the moral community; they have no duties and we have no duties toward them. It is here that Korsgaard parts company with him... ‘On a Kantian conception, what is special about human beings is not that we are the universe’s darlings, whose fate is absolutely more important than the fates of the other creatures who like us experience their own existence. It is exactly the opposite: What is special about us is the empathy that enables us to grasp that other creatures are important to themselves in just the way we are important to ourselves, and the reason that enables us to draw the conclusion that follows: that every animal must be regarded as an end in herself, whose fate matters, and matters absolutely, if anything matters at all.’

Thomas Nagel, “What We Owe a Rabbit,” - nybooks.com/articles/2019/03/21/christine-korsgaard-what-we-owe-a-rabbit/. Very insightful review of Christine Korsgaard’s latest, Fellow Creatures: What We Owe to Other Animals. Korsgaard rehabilitates key features of Kant’s project with reference to ethical treatment of animals that is grounded in our own rationality and not the reduction of suffering as such, as in utilitarianism. While more individualistic, Korsgaard’s approach circumvents the need to measure suffering or capacity to suffer. Rather, it draws upon our intellectual empathy and the need to reflect upon our own ethical maxims. Persistent acts of cruelty reflect cruelty in us, or as Kant would have it that we have adopted a cruel maxim for ourselves. While utilitarian arguments have taken us a long way towards adopting laws that reduce animal suffering, Korsgaard’s approach puts the burden much more firmly upon us. Key to her argument is the distinction between passive and active membership of an ethical community. It strikes me that active members cannot shirk their responsibility to passive members by debating their levels of suffering or intellectual abilities across species. Rather, Korsgaard gives grounds to return to the ethical basis to say that cruelty is wrong, full stop.

On Moral Reality
So was Murdoch a novelistic philosopher or a philosophical novelist? Her philosophy, like her fiction, is populated by the varied reality of moral life: mothers who find their daughters-in-law unpolished and juvenile, concentration camp guards who are kindly fathers. There is nothing illusory about this life: the courage of a parent, the meanness of a child, are as much features of the world as cabbages and kings. And someone with a just and loving gaze can discern these aspects of moral reality just as someone with a good eye can appraise the length of a timber. But being good is difficult and that dear self, our selfish ego, gets in the way of our seeing things as they really are. If we are to do better, we need the virtues, we need beauty, we need the development of a capacity for loving attention. It is this unselfconscious and visceral belief in the enduring power of love that is at the centre of both Murdoch’s philosophy and her fiction. Her work now, as then, is a provocation, where goodness is real, and love is seeing aright.

Anil Gomes, “Iris Murdoch and the Power of Love,” - www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/iris-murdoch-power-love/

On Intellectual Charity
Is it possible to morally justify treating their ideas with sympathy and intellectual charity, given our knowledge of this legacy? I think that we can, although it makes reading and interpreting them a more complex task. Following Mill, I would argue that each of these authors presents important truths about the world we now inhabit that can compel us to reflect more deeply on our own dogmatically held opinions. Rousseau taught us a great deal about how the crass pursuit of naked self-interest can lead to a deep sense of inauthenticity. Marx’s analysis of how capitalism is a revolutionary mode of production which upends tradition societies and their values was a brilliant insight. It can tell us a great deal about how our societies have become increasingly fragmented and pluralistic. Nietzsche’s psychological account of resentment remains the most damning critique of the politics of victimhood to this day, and his genealogical look at the history of moral truths was pioneering. Heidegger’s interpretation of human existence in the world can be separated from his more nefarious political commitments, and provoke deep reflection on some of the rationalistic dogmas all too common today. Indeed, I often think a deeper look at Heideggerian computing in the manner of Herbert Drefyus would do away with certain popular but reductionist accounts of human consciousness and behavior. In each of these examples, it is a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff.

Matt McManus “How Should We Read the Totalitarian Philosophers?” - quillette.com/2019/01/30/how-should-we-read-the-totalitarian-philosophers/. Interesting summary of some of the views of controversial thinkers such as Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger in the context of counterpoints such as Hannah Arendt and John Stuart Mill. As the article notes, Arendt’s On the Origins of Totalitarianism, would not have been possible without her appropriation of Heidegger’s ideas. Hers was one of the most charitable minds of that era.

On Solipsism
If a proposition is a picture of the world, disconnected from any reference to the self whose picture it is, then we are totally vulnerable to skepticism or solipsism. How are we to bridge the gap between ourselves and that world? How can we even make claims about that world? Wittgenstein’s primary world ‘contains no thought’. If we want to understand the world, we must not neglect the ‘subjective side’... We need the irreducible secondary world, full of hypotheses, laws and claims about the existence of objects, if we are to think about the world at all.

Carole Misak, “What is Truth? On Ramsey, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle,” - aeon.co/essays/what-is-truth-on-ramsey-wittgenstein-and-the-vienna-circle. Insightful short essay in Aeon’s history of ideas section on Ramsey’s pragmatism. Once recovered it provides new avenues of progress in philosophy. The other title listed on the cover image sums it up nicely: “Philosophy must be useful. For Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, much of philosophy was mere nonsense. Then came Frank Ramsey’s pragmatic alternative.”

On Democratic Truth
The assumption that the last 50 years or so have marked some unprecedented break with a previous age of truth reflects both an inattention to history and an attitude that might be labeled ‘pessimistic narcissism’...Against this backdrop, it is a relief to open Sophia Rosenfeld’s brilliantly lucid Democracy and Truth. Not only does she make short work of the ‘postmodernism is to blame’ argument; she provides the historical background necessary to understand our current truth crisis. That a crisis does indeed exist, Rosenfeld has no doubt. But it is not one that came upon the Western world from nowhere, like a meteor strike vaporizing a peaceful pastoral landscape. Instead, it broke along an epistemological fault line that has existed in modern democratic regimes since their founding: Who has the authority, in a democracy, to determine what counts as truth—an elite of the supposedly best, most intellectually capable citizens, or the people as a whole?

David Bell, “An Equal Say: Where Does Truth Fit into Democracy,” - thenation.com/article/david-bell-democracy-and-truth/

On Philosophical Correspondence
Diderot and Voltaire had first exchanged letters in 1749 when the ‘prince of the philosophes’ had invited the then up-and-coming Diderot to dinner... The two philosophes nonetheless remained in contact (from afar) over the course of the next twenty-eight years. Voltaire sent fifteen more letters. Diderot replied nine times. The relationship, which actually deepened as time went by, was cemented by mutual friends, mutual interests, and a deep reciprocal respect for each other’s intelligence. And yet, well into the 1760s, a continued sense of wariness existed on both sides. In addition to their divergent views on religion—Voltaire remained a Newtonian deist whereas Diderot had long declared himself an unbeliever—the two men evidently had ambivalent feelings about each other’s respective literary careers. Both had invested heavily in the theater, and each also believed that the other was on the wrong path. Voltaire, from Diderot’s point of view, continued to churn out an endless string of rearguard classical dramas and comedies; as for Voltaire, he secretly found Diderot’s bourgeois dramas to be a sad testament to the direction of the theater.

Andrew Curran, “When Diderot Met Voltaire” - theparisreview.org/blog/2019/01/24/when-diderot-met-voltaire/. Pun intended with recent new materialist critiques of enlightenment era correspondence theory, such as by Quentin Meillassoux.

On Mess
If you don’t already know, ‘Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,’ starring the titular Japanese organizational icon who literally wrote the book on the subject, is the new Netflix show that is causing people to run to libraries, Goodwill stores, consignment shops and—while not Kondo-sanctioned—the Container Store, in an effort to rethink their household items and rid themselves of objects that don’t spark tokimeku, or joy... She’s not the first to do so... In the 19th century, the English word ‘mess’ evolved linguistically. As ethnologist Orvar Löfgren chronicles for the journal Consumption Markets & Culture, from its origin as ‘a place in which food was served, or a dish of (mixed) food,’ ‘mess’ acquired a more negative connotation, sliding from unsavory food concoctions to occupying a more figurative negative space in language, reaching ‘a condition of untidiness’ in 1851, before it ‘colonized new arenas: messy persons, messy homes or lives.’

Jacki Manski, “How America Tidied Up Before Marie Kondo,“ - smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-america-tidied-marie-kondo-180971239. As another academic year starts in Australia, I sometimes wonder if much could be abandoned upon asking the question, '“what brings joy.”

On Unity, Liberty and Charity
For Stout, secularization must be understood as a practical response to plurality, not an institutionalized ideology. Secularization thus creates space for deliberative religious discourse to flourish. The general categories of religious affiliation are not sufficient to determine democratic participation. However, Stout singles out for rigorous critique, support for theocracy and plutocracy, no less cruel and domineering forms of governance. Political theology returns at this point as a means of pursuing the pragmatist’s interest in building coalitions of the right sort.

“On Unity, Liberty and Charity,” - politicaltheology.com/on-unity-liberty-and-charity/. This is part of my brief introduction to a special issue on Pragmatism and Political Theology for the second issue of volume twenty of the journal Political Theology. The collection draws together a series of essays on the theme such as: Molly Farneth’s “When God and State Don’t Dominate: Pragmatism: Political Theology, and Democratic Authority;” Jonathon Kahn’s “Pragmatism, Messianism, and Political Theology after Ted Smith’s Weird John Brown;” Sami Pihlstrom’s “A Pragmatist Approach to the Mutual Recognition between Ethico-Political and Theological Discourses on Evil and Suffering;” and, my essay, “The Pragmatist Question of Sovereignty.” My aim was to explore pragmatist calls to reinvigorate democratic practices. In particular I wished to go further with some of Jeffrey Stout’s claims in Democracy and Tradition.

On Good Arguments
Philosophers are weird, so this kind of civil disagreement still might seem impossible among ordinary folk. However, some stories give hope and show how to overcome high barriers. One famous example involved Ann Atwater and C P Ellis in my home town of Durham, North Carolina; it is described in Osha Gray Davidson’s book The Best of Enemies (1996) and a forthcoming movie. Atwater was a single, poor, black parent who led Operation Breakthrough, which tried to improve local black neighbourhoods. Ellis was an equally poor but white parent who was proud to be Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan. They could not have started further apart. At first, Ellis brought a gun and henchmen to town meetings in black neighbourhoods. Atwater once lurched toward Ellis with a knife and had to be held back by her friends. Despite their mutual hatred, when courts ordered Durham to integrate their public schools, Atwater and Ellis were pressured into co-chairing a charrette – a series of public discussions that lasted eight hours per day for 10 days in July 1971 – about how to implement integration... When each listened to the other’s reasons, they realised that they shared the same basic values. Both loved their children and wanted decent lives for their communities. As Ellis later put it: ‘I used to think that Ann Atwater was the meanest black woman I’d ever seen in my life … But, you know, her and I got together one day for an hour or two and talked. And she is trying to help her people like I’m trying to help my people.’ After realising their common ground, they were able to work together to integrate Durham schools peacefully. In large part, they succeeded.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “Reach Out, Listen, Be Patient. Good Arguments Can Stop Extremism” - aeon.co/ideas/reach-out-listen-be-patient-good-arguments-can-stop-extremism. More about the forthcoming film The Best of Enemies can be found here.

On Enlightened Cafés
What, then, of the Habermasian vision of the café as an arena of civil society, and of civil society as the foundation of enlightened societies? Certainly the café could be the foundation of emancipated life—that was why Agnon’s generation rushed there so ardently. But the study reveals a paradox of some poignancy: no matter how elaborately articulated, no matter how high its ceilings and how dignified its servers, civil society can’t protect cosmopolitan communities from assault when it happens. The café may have been a foundation, but it could never be a fortress. The most heartbreaking scenes in Pinsker’s book are from Warsaw, where much loved ghetto institutions like Café Sztuka stayed in business right up to the final expulsion of the Jews to Treblinka, in 1943. Singers sang and dancers danced, with the forbearance of easily bribed Germans, and while many condemned the frivolity (and the implicit collaboration with the Germans) of these last cafés, the writer Michel Mazor rightly praised their ‘continuous existence in a city which the Germans regarded as a cemetery—was it not, in a certain sense, the ghetto’s protest, its affirmation of the right to live?’

Adam Gopnik, “What Cafés Did for Liberalism” - .newyorker.com/magazine/2018/12/24/what-cafes-did-for-liberalism. “They were essential social institutions of political modernity—caffeinated pathways out of clan society and into a cosmopolitan world.”

On Stored Beliefs
While Clifford’s final argument rings true, it again seems exaggerated to claim that every little false belief we harbour is a moral affront to common knowledge. Yet reality, once more, is aligning with Clifford, and his words seem prophetic. Today, we truly have a global reservoir of belief into which all of our commitments are being painstakingly added: it’s called Big Data. You don’t even need to be an active netizen posting on Twitter or ranting on Facebook: more and more of what we do in the real world is being recorded and digitised, and from there algorithms can easily infer what we believe before we even express a view. In turn, this enormous pool of stored belief is used by algorithms to make decisions for and about us. And it’s the same reservoir that search engines tap into when we seek answers to our questions and acquire new beliefs. Add the wrong ingredients into the Big Data recipe, and what you’ll get is a potentially toxic output. If there was ever a time when critical thinking was a moral imperative, and credulity a calamitous sin, it is now.

Francisco Mejia, “Believing without Evidence Is Always Morally Wrong,” - aeon.co/ideas/believing-without-evidence-is-always-morally-wrong

On Limitless Wonder
Gray is equally interested in, and especially drawn to, those who practice what he calls ‘the atheism of silence.’ These atheists, like those who reject the notion of human progress, don’t often attract large followings. Instead of seeking surrogates for God, they try to acquiesce in something that transcends human understanding. Gray admires the mystical atheist Arthur Schopenhauer, who didn’t believe in God and didn’t particularly believe in reality, either. Gray also includes in this category thinkers who were clearly devout, such as Spinoza, who rejected a creator God but saw God as an eternal substance in all creation, and the Russian philosopher Lev Shestov, who wrote that reason had to be overcome in order for us to know God, and that revelation ‘carries us beyond the limits of all human comprehension and of the possibilities that comprehension admits.’ This kind of apophatic theology has a lot in common with godless mysticism, Gray argues, because saying that God does not exist is not so different from saying that we cannot comprehend God’s existence. In both cases, the material world may be characterized by limited understanding and limitless wonder. That is the charity so seldom extended to atheists in America: the notion that they, too, may be awed by and struggling to make sense of the human and the cosmic. ‘A godless world is as mysterious as one suffused with divinity, and the difference between the two may be less than you think,’ Gray writes.

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.

On Crow’s Nests
Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded young philosophers to task, upbraiding them with not feeling sufficient ‘interest’ in the voyage… but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Crammer’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over. There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!

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.

On Appreciating Libraries
As much as our world hurtles toward digitized information, physical books remain popular, useful, and revered items. We share, use, collect, and read billions of books every year, and we house our most treasured ones in libraries, in some of the most remarkable architecture around the world. And for those who cannot access these amazing buildings, there are volunteers who fill the need as they can, creating mobile libraries to bring books to people in remote places. Today, a visual feast—glimpses of libraries big and small, new and old, from across the globe.

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.