On Ricouer's Influence
Paul Ricoeur is one of those continental philosophers you have to read with a dictionary in one hand and a strong coffee in the other (‘difficult to categorise’, as one reference work gently puts it). So he’s an unlikely candidate for providing the material to halt the march of populism in Europe. Yet his most famous student Emmanuel Macron is being credited with doing just that, having secured an election victory that has calmed nerves in Brussels and Berlin after the UK’s Brexit vote. Precisely what Macron will deliver remains unclear but there’s no doubt he has been heavily influenced by Ricoeur, with whom he worked for two years before leaving academia and becoming an investment banker.

"Paul Ricouer: The Philosopher Behind Emanuel Macron" - http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/paul-ricoeur-the-philosopher-behind-emmanuel-macron-1.3094792. Interesting reflection upon Ricoeur's Ideology and Utopia, and other various connections with Macron's thought. 

On Tautologies
A couple times a week, I hear someone remark ‘It is what it is,’ accompanied by a weary sigh. I always puzzle over the expression a little bit, thinking What else could it be? ‘It is what it is’ is a literal tautology, an apparently needless repetition intended to convey something more. Overused, it has become a cliché, reflecting a too-easy acceptance of bad situations... Likewise ‘If it’s late, it’s late’ can imply nonchalance (on the part of a student: If it’s late, it’s late. Who cares?) or reinforcement of the obligation (on the part of the professor:If it’s late it’s late, even by a minute). And if a deadline-enforcer says ‘If it’s late, it’s late,’ the response might be ‘But it’s not late late.’ Here repetition indicates that the canoncial meaning of late it intended.It’s not late late, it’s just a little late.

Edwin Battistella, "How to Use Repetition," https://blog.oup.com/2017/06/repetition-linguistics/. Relevant advice apropos end of semester essay deadlines.

On Manchester

A note of solidarity with a place I once called home. This mosaic is a much beloved city icon nestled into the corner of Afflecks on Tib and Short Street.

Many of you won’t have ever been to Manchester, but you will definitely have heard of it. It’s famous all over the world for so many wonderful things. Great football teams: Man City, Man United. It’s famous for incredible music: Oasis and Joy Division. It was the birthplace of the leader of the suffragettes. It’s the home of the inventor of the first computer. It’s a place full of comedy and curries and character.

James Corden's Message to Manchester - https://youtu.be/I2xoCFGTi6w

On Today's Library of Alexandria
When the library at Alexandria burned it was said to be an ‘international catastrophe.’ When the most significant humanities project of our time was dismantled in court, the scholars, archivists, and librarians who’d had a hand in its undoing breathed a sigh of relief, for they believed, at the time, that they had narrowly averted disaster... It was strange to me, the idea that somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. It’s like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they put the Ark of the Covenant back on a shelf somewhere, lost in the chaos of a vast warehouse. It’s there. The books are there. People have been trying to build a library like this for ages—to do so, they’ve said, would be to erect one of the great humanitarian artifacts of all time—and here we’ve done the work to make it real and we were about to give it to the world and now, instead, it’s 50 or 60 petabytes on disk, and the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up.
On Bayes' Probability

Interesting summary of Bayes' probability theorem. "Bayes' theorem tells us how to update our beliefs in light of new evidence, but it can't tell us how to set our prior beliefs. And, so, it's possible for some people to hold that certain things are true with one hundred percent certainty, and other people to hold those same things as true with zero percent certainty. What Bayes' theorem shows us is that in those cases there is absolutely no evidence that anyone could do to change their minds. And so as Nate Silver points out in his book The Signal and the Noise, we should probably not have debates between people with one hundred percent prior certainty and zero percent prior certainty because, well, really, they'll never convince each other of anything." - https://youtu.be/R13BD8qKeTg. Importantly, the notion of belief cited here is similar to that of Immanuel Kant's holding to be true [Fuerwahrhalten]. Andrew Chignell's essay, "Belief in Kant" is quite helpful in this regard, https://philpapers.org/rec/CHIBIK-2.

On Philosophical Heuristics
Philosophers place a premium on certain tools for regimenting our thinking, especially logic and probability theory. However, there is a far richer toolbox at our disposal. Over the years, I have observed philosophers repeatedly using various argumentative moves or strategies, which can be encapsulated in rules of thumb that make their tasks easier. These are what might be called philosophical heuristics... To be sure, the heuristics have their limits. There are many distinct abilities that go into making a good philosopher, and I do not pretend to give heuristics for all that philosophers do, or even a tenth of what they do. In particular, there are no short-cuts to profundity, and I should add that there will always be a role for good judgment and insight – just as there is in mathematics and chess. That said, heuristics can make difficult reasoning tasks easier, as much in philosophy as in mathematics and chess.

Alan Hájek, "With the Use of Heuristics, Anybody Can Think Like a Philosopher" - https://aeon.co/essays/with-the-use-of-heuristics-anybody-can-think-like-a-philosopher

On Illilberalism
‘Illiberalism’ is the permanent fact of life. Moments of social peace and coexistence, however troubled and imperfect, are the brief miracle that needs explaining, and protecting. In this way, Mokyr’s vision of a revolution made by hand retrieves the best side of the Enlightenment, and Voltaire as he really was. An easily overlooked aspect of Voltaire’s thought was the priority it gave, especially in his later life, to practice. Watchmaking, vegetable growing, star charting: the great Enlightenment thinker turned decisively away from abstraction as he aged. The argument of ‘Candide’ is neither that the world gets better nor that it’s all for naught; it’s that happiness is where you find it, and you find it first by making it yourself. The famous injunction to ‘cultivate our garden’ means just that: make something happen, often with your hands. It remains, as it was meant to, a reproach to all ham-fisted intellects and deskbound brooders. Getting out to make good things happen beats sitting down and thinking big things up. The wind blows every which way in the world, and Voltaire’s last word to the windblown remains the right one. There are a lot of babies yet to comfort, and gardens still to grow.

Adam Gopnik, "The Illiberal Imagination: Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?" - http://nyer.cm/0dWXTwN

On Arrival

"Like everything metaphysical, the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language," wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in his 1974 Philosophical Grammar. This could well be the epigraph for the recent film Arrivaldirected by Denis Villeneuve. The film centers upon an alien invasion that does not immediately explain itself. Twelve ships hover above the earth beckoning human beings to inquire, "Why are they here?" 

Early on two experts are enlisted to help, a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams). At one point Ian reads from the preface of one of Louise's books, "Language is the foundation of civilization." Louise explains briefly before Ian interjects. Surely she is wrong and science is civilization's true foundation. It is as if Ian is not just correcting Louise, but voicing an attitude of a whole genre of science fiction films. For instance, the 1997 film Contact included aliens who communicated in prime numbers. It also involved a few similar debates between its astronomer protagonist (Jodie Foster) and its religiously minded journalist (Matthew McConaughey). However, Arrival responds by showing Louise's expertise to be crucial. It troubles the typical paradigm in a way that struck me as deeply indebted to philosophies of language and a love of humanistic learning. Or, as Wittgenstein has it above, in order to reframe what is at stake in the "harmony between thought and reality." Others could be cited in the twentieth century turn to language, such as Martin Heidegger's quite different remark that "language is the house of being" in his "Letter on Humanism."

Eric Heisserer's screenplay was based on the 1998 award winning short story "The Story of Your Life," by science fiction writer Ted Chiang. The theme of language recurs in some of Chiang's other work such as, "Understand." A recent New Yorker article observed that origins of "The Story of Your Life," emerged from an idea "about accepting the arrival of the inevitable. A linguist, Chiang thought, might learn such acceptance by deciphering the language of an alien race with a different conception of time." Evidently, this interest in the relation between language and time emerged from Chiang's wider reading in linguistics. It made me think of Heidegger's Being and Timewhich developed a phenomenology of human being grounded in language. A watched pot never boils? Mathematically speaking, of course it does. But such language informs our experience of what it means to be human, impatient and hungry. Concepts such as care and angst later became key themes in existentialist philosophy. Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism" distanced himself from that legacy. Rather, he broadened the scope of his interest in poetry in On the Way to Language

The film draws its audience into this meditation on the nature of language in part [spoiler alert] by depicting the aliens as creatures somewhere between an elephant and an octopus. Both are known to be highly intelligent animals on earth. There was a recent essay on the former creatures' gifts in "If You Were an Elephant," by Charles Foster. It suggests that empathy with elephants may make us better, kinder, wiser people. Arrival's animal likenesses are both otherworldly and yet familiar. They help to illuminate the difficulties of learning the aliens' utterly different way of thinking which is expressed visually through complex pictographs. At one point Louise provides a grammar lesson to impatient military man Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to explain why so much time is needed to cross this gap between human and alien mentalities. The film takes its time in this regard, but worth the wait. It turns out that the reason for this alien arrival is grounded in the very encounter with alien language itself. This may seem rather anticlimactic but understanding the harmony between their thought and language will have significant consequences that cannot be reduced to an advance in technology.

The film left me ruminating on two points. Firstly, humanistic forms of learning often aim to expand our capacity to understand the viewpoints of people in languages and cultures different from our own. How well they succeed in doing so is much debated these days. But the film provides a thought experiment worthy of further reflection. What if the most important skill we need in a crisis is not mathematic but a humanistic capacity to learn languages with all the philosophical, historical and cultural context that involves? Secondly, the film makes the case that somehow by involving herself in this expanded linguistic capacity, Louise's character is better able to live her life with its joys and suffering. Towards the end of the film Louise asks Ian, "If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?" The film responds with a pastiche of memories and an affirmation that maybe it is possible to learn to embrace life as it arrives. I would suggest that this is a difficult hopefulness, and again much worth reflecting upon. 

Lastly, Arrival's soundtrack is deeply moving at times and also made me wonder about the film's philosophical undercurrents. One of the main songs is actually not on the soundtrack, but rather is "On the Nature of Daylight" from Max Richter's The Blue Notebooks album. The piano version of the theme is called "Written on the Sky," and the sheet music is accessible to play. It is not Wittgenstein's Blue Books referenced here as was the case in Alex Garner's 2015 Ex Machina. Rather it is Kafka's posthumously published papers, The Blue Octavo NotebooksThere, on 8 December 1917, one of Kafka's own more elusive comments on language can be found: "For everything outside the phenomenal world, language can only be used allusively, but never even approximately in a comparative way, since, corresponding as it does to the phenomenal world, it is concerned only with property and its relations." It is difficult to know just what he meant by "outside the phenomenal," but he was reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling around this time. Whatever the case, literary, linguistic and philosophical concepts coincide here in ways recently explored in Rebecca Schumann's recent monograph on Kafka and Wittgenstein. 

Arendt on In Our Time
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. She developed many of her ideas in response to the rise of totalitarianism in the C20th, partly informed by her own experience as a Jew in Nazi Germany before her escape to France and then America. She wanted to understand how politics had taken such a disastrous turn and, drawing on ideas of Greek philosophers as well as her peers, what might be done to create a better political life. Often unsettling, she wrote of ‘the banality of evil’ when covering the trial of Eichmann, one of the organisers of the Holocaust.
On Kant's Dog
As Darling puts it, ‘Our apparent desire to protect those animals to which we more easily relate indicates that we may care more about our own emotional state than any objective biological criteria.’ She looks to Kant, who saw animal ethics as serving people. ‘If a man has his dog shot . . . he thereby damages the kindly and humane qualities in himself,’ he wrote in ‘Lectures on Ethics.’ ‘A person who already displays such cruelty to animals is also no less hardened toward men...’ Some years ago, Christine M. Korsgaard, a Harvard philosopher and Kant scholar, started working on a Kantian case for animal rights... Animals can’t reason their way to choices, Kant noted, so the freedom of rights would be lost on them. If the nectar-drinking hummingbird were asked to exercise her will to the highest rational standard, she’d keep flying from flower to flower... Korsgaard argued that hanging everything on rational choice was a red herring, however, because humans, even for Kant, are not solely rational beings. They also act on impulse. The basic motivation for action, she thought, arises instead from an ability to experience stuff as good or bad, which is a trait that animals share. If we, as humans, were to claim rights to a dog’s mind and body in the way we claim rights to our yard, we would be exercising arbitrary power, and arbitrary power is what Kant seeks to avoid. So, by his principles, animals must have freedom—that is, rights—over their bodies.This view doesn’t require animals to weigh in for abstract qualities such as intelligence, consciousness, or sentience. Strictly, it doesn’t even command us never to eat poached eggs or venison. It extends Enlightenment values—a right to choice in life, to individual freedom over tyranny—to creatures that may be in our custody.

"If Animals Have Rights, Should Robots? - http://www.newyorker.com/?p=3282142. This is an interesting article on animal and robot ethics. It summarizes a range of approaches before demonstrating why it might help to focus on how our ethics are shaped by our interactions with creatures and things. As the author concludes, "As people, we realize our full selves through appropriation; like most animals and robots, we approach maturity by taking on the habits of the world around us, and by wielding tools."