On the History of Ideas

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.

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On Animal Minds
Talking parrots, empathetic primates, playing dogs, and dolphins who recognize themselves in the mirror. On this episode of the LQ podcast, we talk to scientists and writers who are exploring the frontiers of animal minds. With Jane Goodall, Marc Bekoff, Frans de Waal, Virginia Morell, Irene Pepperberg, and more.

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.

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On Rembrandt's Recognition
There are actually three people in this painting. The first one, of course, is the embodiment of the philosophical mind weighed down as it is by wistful melancholy, as is the case for philosophers, at least in the classical writings about them. The second one, Aristotle has his right hand on the lyrical pate, the beautiful poetic brain of Homer. But there is a third person on whom the whole story… And that person is contained in a medal that hangs on the very chain that dominates the composition. If you look hard you will see that there is a little figure turned in profile. The little figure, you can just see his cute not very classical nose, but above all you can see the helmet. And the helmet would have told everybody this can only be Alexander the Great… Both are honoured in antiquity I need hardly say, but both also come to sad ends. Homer, blind, despised. Aristotle also essentially sent into a kind of ignominious isolation. So in some sense or other they represent for Rembrandt the complicated relationship between being acknowledged and being rejected… Rembrandt ever since he was a kid has been painting himself, his fantasies have him with one of these fancy golden chains. Does he ever get one? No, he absolutely doesn’t.

Simon Schama, “Schama on Rembrandt: Masterpieces of the Late Years.” - bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04mhsn1.

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On Foxtrot
Did you know the foxtrot is actually a dance? The foxtrot steps are really easy. Watch this. Step forward, forward, to the side and stop. Back, back, to the side and stop.

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.

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On Socratic Figures
This type of character, though unusual, is not unheard-of in philosophy. Unlike, say, history or sociology, philosophy has long reserved a place for the occasional talent who struggles or declines to publish. The tradition dates back to Socrates, who not only didn’t write but also disparaged writing as too rigid a medium to capture ‘the living, breathing discourse of the man who knows.’ (Plato’s words, of course.) Even as recently as the second half of the 20th century, many philosophy departments still employed a resident Socratic figure — a nonpublishing legend like Sidney Morgenbesser of Columbia or Rogers Albritton of Harvard — as if to provide a daily reminder that the discipline’s founding virtues of intellectual spontaneity, dialectical responsiveness and lack of dogmatism did not lend themselves naturally to the settled view of a treatise.

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.

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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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