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. 

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.

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).

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."

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?"

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

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. 

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.’

"‘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.

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.

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."

On Atheist Prayer
Yesterday I visited Auschwitz. I knew it wold be an intense experience, and I was also aware that I didn’t quite know how... What does it mean, then, for an atheist to pray? For this atheist, yesterday, I was deeply, emotionally connecting to the suffering of the Jewish children kept in concentration camps by Nazis, and to the Latinx children kept in detention centers by my own government. I couldn’t fully experience the suffering and grief on its own. I had to feel some kind of hopefulness in order to feel the grief. The hopefulness wasn’t rational. It had no direction. It wasn’t conceptual or articulated. It represented no path forward or strategy. But it was there, and it was deeply necessary for the experience of human connection. For me, yesterday, there was no other way... Visiting Auschwitz taught me many things yesterday, but I think this was the most important. Even if one doesn’t believe in God, or in eternal souls, or life after death—as I don’t—there is still a place for prayer. Sometimes we need to experience hopefulness even if we don’t have a good reason to. We need it in order to fully experience the suffering and tragedy that is an unfortunate fact of our lives. The alternative to a life without prayer for me is not a more “rational” one where I only believe and am motivated by the facts, for I cannot truly grasp the facts without prayer. They are too horrible to look at all on their own. And so I pray.

Lisa Miracchi, "Some Reflections on My Visit to Auschwitz - or - On the Possibility of Atheist Prayer." This is a valuable reflection on how to cope with suffering by a philosopher at University of Pennsylvania. It seems to me that it is contextualizing two issues. Firstly, whatever your beliefs, religious or otherwise, honestly facing human cruelty can overwhelm. In particular, caging children is morally horrific. The detention centers at Auschwitz are in that sense similarly appalling as more recent examples reported from United States and Australian political life. With regard to the detention centers in Nauru, United Nations officials have "demanded the Federal Government reconsider its offshore processing policy as concerns about detainees' mental health grows." In the US, Elizabeth Warren, herself a former law professor at Harvard University, recently described the United States immigration detention centers as warehouses "filled with cages. Cages for men. Cages for women. Cages for mamas with babies. Cages for girls. Cages for boys." Miracchi's essay on Auschwitz speaks to the horror many of us felt after reading Warren's eyewitness account. It is also fresh on many of our minds given the US Supreme Court's decision that also set current immigration policy in the context of WWII era US internment of Japanese people. While the court upheld a revised US travel ban, it also overturned the 1944 Korematsu vs. United States decision. Justice Roberts wrote that it "was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and —to be clear—‘has no place in law under the Constitution.'" Secondly, Miracchi's essay persuasively suggests that prayer has meaning for people who hold many different beliefs. It should give pause to those that depict irreconcilable clashes between atheists and religious people. Many people seek out practices that enable hope to flourish in their lives. These are necessary for the long term work needed to find practical alleviation of suffering wherever we find it. Prayerful people in diverse democratic societies may yet find surprising new ways to build coalitions that respond to the rise of cruelty.

On Illumination
[Arendt’s] defense of the dignity of politics provides a critical standard for judging the situation many of us find ourselves in today, where the opportunity to participate, to act in concert and to engage in genuine debate with our peers is being diminished. We must resist the temptation to opt out of politics and to assume that nothing can be done in face of all the current ugliness, deception and corruption. Arendt’s lifelong project was to honestly confront and comprehend the darkness of our times, without losing sight of the possibility of transcendence, and illumination. It should be our project, too.
On Transparency
The rise of fake news has been attributed by some to the emergence of postmodern thought. Victor Davis Hanson, a scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University wrote in 2017 that fake news can be ‘traced back to the campus,’ specifically to ‘academic postmodernism,’ which Hanson says, ‘derides facts and absolutes, and insists that there are only narratives and interpretations.’ That’s not quite right. The insistence on the primacy of narratives and interpretations does not involve a deriding of facts but an alternative story of their emergence. Postmodernism sets itself against the notion of facts just lying there discrete and independent, and waiting to be described. Instead it argues that fact is the achievement of argument and debate, not a pre-existing entity by whose measure argument can be assessed. Arguments come first; when they are successful, facts follow — at least for a while, until a new round of arguments replaces them with a new set of facts... This wholesale distrust of authoritative mechanisms leads to the bizarre conclusion that an assertion of fact is more credible if it lacks an institutional source. In this way of thinking, a piece of news originating in a blog maintained by a teenager in a basement in Idaho would be more reliable than a piece of news announced by the anchor of a major network. And, again, what has brought us to this sorry pass is not the writings of Derrida or Foucault or any postmodern guru but the twin mantras of more free speech and absolute transparency.

Stanley Fish, "'Transparency' Is the Mother of Fake News," The Stone, NY Times. Interesting summary of technological ideology today. Fish at least makes the case that philosophical emphases upon the deliberative context of information is not tantamount to the relativistic production of "fake news." This distinction is important to keep in mind when considering the relation between facts and opinions, as did Hannah Arendt in the 1960s context of her essay "Lying in Politics." For a recent film dramatization of those events, The Post, went some way to highlighting how a free press's standards of authorship cannot be extricated from political authority tout court. In any case, these issues are particularly important for political deliberations concerning religion, where the diversity of interlocutors can be extreme. While underdeveloped at times, pragmatist approaches to that issue provide much needed support for those interested in the persistence of democracy. Jefffrey Stout's Democracy and Tradition is a key primer to that end.

On Arguments for the Existence of God
In philosophy generally, decisive ‘knock-down’ arguments against any claim are rare. You can challenge the reasoning of an argument and say that a conclusion doesn’t follow, but the idea of definitively settling once and for all a question like whether objective morality exists seems almost unthinkable. But there seems to be a real bias against the idea that we can even discuss the possibility of God as being on the table at all.
— Charles Styles
Yes, there is a kind of double-standard here. It’s a double-standard that you find not only among New Atheist writers but even, unfortunately, among some academic philosophers. In virtually every other area of philosophy, even the most notoriously bizarre arguments and ideas are taken seriously, such as: How do I know that the table in front of me is real and not just a dream? True, there are almost no philosophers who would take seriously as a live option the idea that the world of our experience is a complete dream or hallucination. But, certainly, every philosopher would say that whether or not we think for a moment that the conclusion is plausible, we need to take seriously the arguments for that conclusion and examine them, see what might be wrong with them, and also consider how a radical sceptic may defend himself against our criticisms.
Philosophical ideas are generally treated as if they are always still on the table. They are always worthy of our consideration and discussion and maybe there’s some aspect or hidden wisdom behind the argument that we haven’t yet noticed.
— Edward Fesser

"The Best Books on Arguments for the Existence of God: Recommended by Edward Feser" - https://fivebooks.com/best-books/arguments-existence-god-edward-feser/

On Kant's Categorical Imperative
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how, in the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) sought to define the difference between right and wrong by applying reason, looking at the intention behind actions rather than at consequences. He was inspired to find moral laws by natural philosophers such as Newton and Leibniz, who had used reason rather than emotion to analyse the world around them and had identified laws of nature. Kant argued that when someone was doing the right thing, that person was doing what was the universal law for everyone, a formulation that has been influential on moral philosophy ever since and is known as the Categorical Imperative. Arguably even more influential was one of his reformulations, echoed in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which he asserted that humanity has a value of an entirely different kind from that placed on commodities. Kant argued that simply existing as a human being was valuable in itself, so that every human owed moral responsibilities to other humans and was owed responsibilities in turn.