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.
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.
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.”
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.
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,” - 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.
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.
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.”
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.