On Caligula's Time
Caligula ruled as Roman emperor from 37 to 41, following the reign of his adopted grandfather Tiberius. The Roman people, remembering their fondness for Caligula’s father Germanica, initially revered their new ruler, and Caligula, as Suetonius writes in The Lives of Twelve Caesars, ‘inflamed this devotion, by practising all the arts of popularity.’ He made a great show of pomp: ‘Grecian games at Syracuse, and Attic plays at Lyons in Gaul,’ while serving ‘loaves and other victuals modeled in gold’ at his banquets. He spent recklessly, which later left Rome in debt. A rise in taxes soon followed. He wished a change in governmental system from imperial to regal, and later sought for himself divine recognition. Soon Caligula’s popularity was undone by his reputation for cruelty and barbarity, particularly toward the senate.

“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.

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On Locke's Entanglements
Such attention to historical context matters. These complex debates over justice shaped the early modern world, and continue to shape ours... Liberalism arose in reaction to slavery. It sought inclusion, and defined rights with broad promises, albeit ones that could be opened to exclusions. Indeed, one could argue that the breadth of such promises made racism (and other forms of prejudice) necessary in order to once again justify hereditary hierarchies. But for many others, it opened wide promises of inclusion. The theory itself was one that strained for relative equality under the law for all those who could give meaningful consent. The similarity of these disputes to ones we conduct today becomes more apparent with such context. For example: do rights inhere in all human beings or only in citizens? Abstract philosophical debates emerged from real dilemmas but also helped to shape policies that affected millions of people’s lives. They still do.

Holly Brewer, “Does Locke’s Entanglement with Slavery Undermine His Philosophy?” - aeon.co/essays/does-lockes-entanglement-with-slavery-undermine-his-philosophy?

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On Equal Dignity
Religious privilege of this sort was never intended for all belief systems, but rather for one type of religion. Sure, its advocates will on occasion rope in representatives of non- Christian faiths to lend the illusion of principle to their cause. But the real aim and effect of the religious liberty movement is to advance their idea of religion at the expense of everyone else. If your religion or deeply held moral beliefs include the view that all people should be treated with equal dignity, then this religious liberty won’t do anything for you.

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.

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On an Avalanche of Speech
For the longest time, we thought that as speech became more democratized, democracy itself would flourish. As more and more people could broadcast their words and opinions, there would be an ever-fiercer battle of ideas—with truth emerging as the winner, stronger from the fight. But in 2018, it is increasingly clear that more speech can in fact threaten democracy. The glut of information we now face, made possible by digital tools and social media platforms, can bury what is true, greatly elevate and amplify misinformation and distract from what is important... It’s not speech per se that allows democracies to function, but the ability to agree—eventually, at least some of the time—on what is true, what is important and what serves the public good. This doesn’t mean everyone must agree on every fact, or that our priorities are necessarily uniform. But democracy can’t operate completely unmoored from a common ground, and certainly not in a sea of distractions.

Zeynep Tufekci, “An Avalanche of Speech Can Bury Democracy,” - politico.com/magazine/story/2018/09/05/too-much-free-speech-bad-democracy-219587

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On Deleting Digital Hashem
This presents a challenge for Jewish law to come to grips with the increasing centrality of digital text. It is a longstanding prohibition that one cannot erase Shem Hashem, the holy names of God (or G-d, for those who feel the prohibition extends beyond Hebrew). Writings containing the names cannot be destroyed or mutilated—or taken into the bathroom, for that matter—but must be stored in a geniza for later burial. This restriction has had the happy side effect of giving us archival treasures like the Cairo geniza, whose hundreds of thousands of manuscript fragments fueled the histories of S. D. Goitein and others. But what are we do to with monitors, hard drives, and Kindles? Bury them all? Halachic consensus has tended to be pragmatically permissive, ruling that there is no prohibition on the erasure of God’s names on a screen, on a disk, or in some other digital form. But there has been little agreement on exactly why there is no prohibition.

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

 Reading Room of the John Rylands Library

Reading Room of the John Rylands Library

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On Mountain
Gradually though, the dragons and divinities were put to flight and our feelings toward mountains underwent an astonishing change. Fascination replaced trepidation. Adventure replaced reverence. As cities grew and we insulated ourselves away from nature the mountains called us back. The magic of mountains strengthened: their fierce beauty; their power to enchant; their challenge. We went to places that were intimidating and uncontrollable, that inspired in us the heavy blend of pleasure and terror, which we came to call the sublime. This search for the sublime drew us outwards and upwards. The great peaks of the world began to exert a force upon the imagination. A siren song that was easy to hear, hard to resist and sometimes fatal. But legends of death in high places spread the spell of the mountain wider still.
 Airan Kang,  The Critique of Judgment 2010,  on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

Airan Kang, The Critique of Judgment 2010, on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

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. 

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On Artifacts
The contemporary world is pervasively artifactual. Even our most mundane, biologically based activities, such as eating, sleeping, and sex, depend on engagement with artifacts. Moreover, many of the plants and animals we encounter on a daily basis qualify as biological artifacts... But unlike language—which also pervades human life from top to bottom—artifacts as such are not the subject matter of any well-defined area of philosophical research. This is as much the case today as it has been throughout the history of Western philosophy... Philosophy of technology might have played this role, but historically it has not done so. Although its roots reach back to the 19th century, philosophy of technology became a widely recognized specialization only in the second half of the 20th century. This early phase was dominated by so-called ‘humanities philosophy of technology...’ Heavily influenced by Martin Heidegger’s (1954 [1977]) seminal essay, ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ this strain of philosophy of technology focuses primarily on the cultural and social effects of industrial and post-industrial technologies.

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.

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On Dewey's Bad Decimals
The Dewey Decimal System has evolved and improved significantly since its original publication in 1876. While it is a useful tool for efficiently organising libraries, it is also an invisible tool reinforcing social inequalities that place greater value on knowledge produced by, for and about straight white men. Next time you go to find a book, think about where you’re looking, and who created the path to that information.

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).

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On Museum Hours
An art student worked here for a while. I liked him, he was a punk kid, just as I’d been once. He thought the museum was a bit ridiculous. He said when he looked at the paintings, he mostly just saw money, or more accurately, things standing in for money. I guess this is what he’d learned at university. He said this was clearest in Dutch still lifes which were essentially just piled-up possessions of the newly rich of that time. He said these were no different than if someone today were to paint a pile of Rolex watches, champagne bottles, and flat-screen TVs. That they were the rap-star videos of their day. And he said they were only less subtle versions of all the other commodities the museum was hoarding, and this was just part of the way things were disguised in the time of Late Capitalism. He didn’t hold it against the museum personally, but he went on like that. I asked him why he always used the term ‘Late Capitalism,’ and how people knew it was so late, and if it wasn’t more troublesome if what existed now was early. He knew a lot more than me but he didn’t seem to have an answer for that. He was also unhappy about the cost of museum admission. I agreed it would be nicer if it was free, but he was a big fan of the movies and I had to remind him they cost as much and he never complained about that. ‘Yeah, you can’t win,’ he said, ‘but maybe someday everyone will lose less and museums and movies could both be free.’
 Children's Games, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Oil on Panel, 1560

Children's Games, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Oil on Panel, 1560

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."

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On Diogenes
Yet his [Diogenes the Cynic] cleverness in debate, his witty asperities, and his cussed integrity evidently made him beloved by Athenians. He also has modern appeal—not as a Mr. Natural avant la lettre, but rather as an opponent of all things tribal and provincial. When asked where he came from, he declared (using the Greek term cosmopolites), ‘I’m a citizen of the world.’ When asked what he found most beautiful, he said, ‘Freedom of speech.’ As a model of his philosophy, which emphasized praxis over abstract theorizing, he made a strong impression on his biographer, who concludes, ‘Such were his views and he clearly acted in accordance with them.’

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?"

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On the Daimons' Wisdom
If the laws are so easy for factions and plutocrats and autocrats to seize, why do we think laws are fit to rule at all? How can so frail a thing as civil law be trusted to protect our livelihoods and our borders, keeping citizens safe from each other’s bad humors? The answer is that laws can rule if we equip them to—but not by themselves. Even the kingliest laws need constant support from citizens who understand their human origins and all-too-human vulnerability. Plato expressed this through a myth. When men first walked the earth, the god Cronos gave them a race of wiser beings, the daimons, as rulers. When that age vanished in the mists of time, human beings made laws in imitation of the daimons’ wisdom, which was second-best after that of the gods. These legislative efforts have always been flawed, often fatally. They are, after all, only a thirdhand imitation of reason and justice. But they are still the best we humans can do.

Erica Benner, "The Daimons’ Wisdom: How do you preserve the rule of law when tyranny is on the rise? Lessons from the Florentine republic." laphamsquarterly.org/rule-law/daimons-wisdom

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On Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal. Conceptions differ with respect to the scope of such thinking, the type of goal, the criteria and norms for thinking carefully, and the thinking components on which they focus. Its adoption as an educational goal has been recommended on the basis of respect for students’ autonomy and preparing students for success in life and for democratic citizenship. ‘Critical thinkers’ have the dispositions and abilities that lead them to think critically when appropriate. The abilities can be identified directly; the dispositions indirectly, by considering what factors contribute to or impede exercise of the abilities. Standardized tests have been developed to assess the degree to which a person possesses such dispositions and abilities. Educational intervention has been shown experimentally to improve them, particularly when it includes dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring. Controversies have arisen over the generalizability of critical thinking across domains, over alleged bias in critical thinking theories and instruction, and over the relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking.

David Hitchcock, "Critical Thinking," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-thinking/. Very helpful summary of the literature on critical thinking in education. In particular, its contemporary grounding in John Dewey's reflective pragmatism and later appropriation in Bloom's taxonomy. 

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On the Library as Culture Pass
If you don’t have a library card [in NY City], there are now 33 more reasons to get one. Starting Monday, cardholders from any of the city’s three systems can get free admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, The Museum of Modern Art and 30 other cultural institutions across the five boroughs. The ‘Culture Pass’ program aims to give more city residents — especially those in underserved communities — access to museums and other sites. ‘I think it’s one of the greatest things to happen,’ said Queens Library CEO Dennis Walcott. ‘It really shows that libraries are the connective tissue to the public at large.’
IMG_0074.JPG

"‘Culture Pass’ Turns City Library Cards into Admission for 33 Cultural Institutions" - amny.com/things-to-do/nyc-library-culture-pass-1.19845212. It's a brilliant idea in my view and one consistent with the important role of libraries in urban centers. One of my favorite spots to visit in Melbourne's CBD is the State Library of Victoria. One afternoon last July its main reading room (image here) was completely abuzz with people: international university students being tutored in English; secondary students practicing their algebra and business Japanese; and, the rest of us taking in the atmosphere as inspiration to read and think. These days I travel to Sydney's Mitchell Library in the State Library of NSW, with its own perfectly lit reading spaces. It is almost always similarly chock full of readers. In any case, I think NY city libraries are trailblazing a model as ancient as the library of Alexandria, with its museums and spaces for discussion as well as reading and thought. Libraries do not lose their importance in a digital age. They rather seem to be finding new ways to speak to the human desire for connection.

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On Anaxagoras' Hand
It’s undeniable, though, that Anaxagoras’ position has triumphed and that we are his children. In our secular worldview, shaped by five hundred years of experimental science—whose unstoppable development is in great measure a consequence of its distancing itself from religious dogma—it is more plausible that a series of slight variations and mutations determined the specific morphology that has allowed human beings to exercise control over nature than to posit a master plan of intelligent and supernatural design that preordained our physiology to help us become the dominant species. In spite of this, anyone tempted to conclude that the matter has been settled for good should bear in mind something that Sir Thomas Browne wrote in the 1630s: ‘As though there were a metempsychosis and the soul of one man passed into another, opinions do find after certain revolutions, men and minds like those who first begat them.’ The position of Aristotle and Galen, of Vesalius and Bell, the notion that there is metaphysical purpose to everything in nature, a grand plan running its course harmoniously and inexorably, might be swimming through underground tunnels, or hibernating in the most hidden crevices of the reigning cultural paradigm, but it’s still there, alive and well, waiting for future instantiations. This should come as no surprise. Whether we are the dominant species because we have hands or we have hands in order to be the dominant species is, really, another formulation of the question about the purpose of our existence in the world. If we push it we’ll see that ultimately it pertains to our mortality, our most fundamental relationship with the world, and whether or not what we see and touch is all there is.

Pablo Maurette, "The Children of Anaxagoras," Lapham's Quarterly - laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/children-anaxagoras. Interesting article on philosophical and religious views of the hand's relation to human being. As the author hints, there are more recent concomitant debates along the lines of Aristotle and Anaxagoras. For instance, it seems to me that their differences are transposed in Derrida’s critique of Heidegger in “Geschlecht II: Heidegger’s Hand.” In brief, the difference between Anaxagoras and Aristotle is cited by the author above in Aristotle's On the Parts of Animals as follows: “Anaxagoras says that man is the most intelligent of the animals [x] because he has hands [y], but it would be better to say that he has hands [y] because he is the most intelligent [x].” I have added the x and y symbols to better track how this might map onto Heidegger and Derrida. The key is to see how the emphasis on language in twentieth century philosophy changes the inflection of how hands are related to human intellect. For instance, Heidegger thinks that the distinctive feature of human being (Dasein) is our use of language. We might say he reiterates Aristotle's side of the argument as follows: we have hands that point and write [y] because we are human-language-animals [x]. Hence, Heidegger thinks that only human beings have hands in this sense. In contrast, for Derrida, we are human-language-animals [x] because we have hands that point and write [y]. I have intentionally oversimplified their views slightly here. In particular, Derrida thinks that language already includes an abstract capacity to signify or point beyond itself. This aspect of language results in his neologism différance. So he does not think that hands cause language-being so much as that language, following Saussure, already includes what hands do, i.e. pointing and writing. There is an abstraction in language independent of particular human beings. There is much debate today about the degree to which Derrida remained too enamored with the legacies of Saussure (Brandom) much more Kant (Miellassoux). In any case, it seems to me that, like Anaxagoras, Derrida nonetheless ends up with a less anthropocentric view of hands better able to apprehend the possibility of 64,000 year old Neanderthal cave paintings cited in the article above as well as contemporary animals that can use sign language and tools. In my view, this makes Derrida more open and better able to apprehend technological development.

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On The Roots of Writing
As a writer of nonfiction, I can’t help but love writing’s roots in enumerating concrete objects and reality itself. The textual analyst part of me loves how Mesopotamian tokens were wrapped in clay envelopes after being impressed on the soft exterior – perhaps clay-wrapped tokens of meaning give rise to the notion that text is both a surface and an interior, and that that’s what leads us to talk so relentlessly (in English and other languages) about what is ‘in’ a given text. The poet in me wants to repurpose the heavy thumb of authority’s use of writing on behalf of the powerless. The linguist in me recognises the cognitive significance of the layers of writing’s invention, none of which the brain was evolved to do specifically but with which we have co-evolved. And as a partisan of text, I know its deep history won’t ever be erased.

Michael Erard - aeon.co/essays/the-roots-of-writing-lie-in-hopes-and-dreams-not-in-accounting. A very helpful summary of recent histories of writing's origins in religious and poetic human interests rather than government bureaucracy. "Over and over, what we see is that writing is more like gunpowder than like a nuclear bomb."