A write of passage…

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Writing is a bit like sailing. There are days that you’re coasting, the waters are calm and uneventful, but the life underneath appears as miracles do. Other times winds conjure travesty and all is now opaque, yet scandalously alive! Sometimes it feels like a rite of passage, as if, oh faithless one gather your tears, God has made it so. Believe and all is won, doubt and all is cherished. Writing is neither. For with each stroke the arrogance of pernicious truth finds the page, doubly entreating for the faint of heart lamenting as the ink dries and false idols appear.

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Oh, to See with Wide-Eyes

I use to think that a state of indifference was equivalent to a state of non-existence. And yet there is great power to be had. Not over the object of one’s past affections, for clearly to speak of it in such vein would only deny its actual instantiation; i.e. it rests in focused attention to that object as defiant rejection, and that, is still an act of care. It’s more like a flickering flame that simply and quite uneventfully goes out. The power is grounded in the resurrection of self. For immersed in the object of one’s affection there is always the threat of self-annihilation that is only properly protected within the art of diabolical negotiation. Where it withers, the flame breathes no more. I’ve never wanted to be cremated prematurely, and so the state of indifference has been welcomed with a sense of anticipation. Still, moving forward, the lens of my concentration seems in wide-angle viewing to see things quite distinctly. I won’t say more clearly, for what is to be said of the quality of sight poised narrowly or widely that cannot be captured by a simple – yet painful – change in focus? The vantage from which the world is now screened only opens endless possibilities previously undisclosed; alitheia, which is really a process that motions from a state of unconcealedness to a state where all that was priorly in oblivion is disclosed, or if you like, becomes visible. There is celebration in this.

Philosophical Confessions

I decided to rename my blog Philosophical Confessions in light of new formalized sensibilities informed by both experience and my philosophical propensities. My original motivation for this blog has not changed.

It is still:

Home to philosophical reflections on life issues. These will vary from philosophically dense scholarly-type papers, to quibbles, annotations, critiques, self-help guides, and problematics. It was the university, first as a student and later as a Professor of Philosophy, that was once home to my philosophical engagement with life issues. Initially this was an ideal forum for an interactive, passionate exchange of commonly entrenched concerns but as education came to suffer the ills of institutionalization more and more, and standardized policies replaced the creative, and biophilous dialectical flux that characterized the inter and intra-human exchange amongst practitioners of philosophy, this became an ever alienating experience. Yet the yearning for meaningful reflection has not waned and the practical application dating back to the Greeks has finally found new footing in Philosophical Counselling. Putting philosophy back on the streets and employing philosophical methods as a form of counselling constitute the two-tier structure of this blog. Negotiating the “truth” in all facets of life and living will be the driving force that both defines the parameters and implications of all philosophical reflections.

I am now enriched from years of  ‘agitation’ that has both deepened and contoured my philosophical preoccupations. Not unlike Socrates, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Simone de Beauvoir and even might I daringly add, Veronica Franco (16th-century Venetian courtesan and poet), seeking the truth, the mainstay of all philosophical ventures, is sought not somewhere aloof, rigidly outside, beyond, over-and-against, or cast off from its visceral incarnation.  For it is in how one lives one’s life that the truth is revealed. Writing brings truth to bear in a social domain which often goes amiss, creating havoc wherever misunderstanding perturbs interpretation. Confessionals add context; they are personalized moments in which the truth is disclosed or dislodged from the abundance that purveys life. Not then to be read like a map plotting life denotatively, but more like music rich in notational instructions which only properly comes to life when played …symphonically. I like to think of these confessionals as a symphony of sorts – however badly written, for I am no musician.

Spinning Top

I would never have pegged myself for the self-indulgent. But there you have it: I am. Not self-centred or selfish, mind you. In fact, on Aristotle’s scale I’d come out on the excessively self-sacrificing and accommodating side, and we all know those are vices that tamper with your well-being. But today I shall leave Aristotle at the door. Sorry dude! Today’s lesson kids (hehehehe) is about the desire to be understood. You’d think it a noncontroversial desire, right? For anyone whose composure isn’t being threatened by your all-too-innocent – angelic? saintly? (hehehehe) – insistence, sure! And there you are following him around from room to room to make your point, and as you do, his steps accelerate – I never knew he could walk so damn fast! – and eventually running out of places to go, the same rooms are visited …ad infinitum…. Okay so we did eventually get off the merry-go-round but even then the house still felt as if it were spinning. Funny how I never even noticed he was silent in all of this! WHAT?! Well, he w885e39de89d01b0452da242742484522as there, right? It’s not like he said: Shut up, lay off, leave me alone, go away, take your little spinning top and vamos!!!! Secretly I knew he knew I was right! (I know he did!!! 🙂 )and his silent “presence” seemed to confirm it to my little mind! ELEOS, Pirocacos, moutzes afthones! But not everyone wants their “world” shattered by the truth, and so however important understanding is, it is not….yes, Pirocacos…NOT….everyone’s priority. Truth does not always trump composure. Truth does not always take a front seat to serenity. Truth is not always his truth. (Notice mine is capitalized…NO, I’m not self-indulgent at all, and I take offencedog-chasing-tail-ocd-2-510x600.jpg at the suggestion!) And so that cute, adorable, feisty, little spinning top looks slightly more like a dog chasing its own tail! Nuts, right!!!? The truth is (OMG, still I seek understanding from my anonymous audience…there is just no salvation for this woman!) …what was I saying? Oh ya, the truth is that “the truth” is never really an isolated state of affairs, and so stuck within the confines of one’s own comportment is not only illusory and self-indulgent, but it’s never quite experienced as truth until it is understood by your dialogical counterpart. So cut her some slack, people!

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Students who have taken this course have valued how the lectures challenged their existing conceptual frameworks, without at the same time offending their sensibilities, espousing ideas that were perceived to be both practical and intuitive. Students found the assigned exercises to be especially thought-provoking, and fun.

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So What’s Your Point?

 

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The rage people sometimes feel for philosophers is probably warranted. A friend recently read one of my blogs and laughingly said, so what’s the conclusion? Feeling secretly disturbed, I think I might have laughed more loudly when I quipped, do you always surrender yourself to the linguistic whims of your writer? Silence. A rift. Then: Casual conversation emptied the void.

The science narrative has pervaded mainstream discourse with a sense for the practical. Assessment. conclusion, application. Assessment. conclusion, application. Assessment. conclusion, application. Assessment. conclusion, application. Repeat.

Therein lies the trouble. This paradigm of discourse does not have dibs on how to construe the truth or endeavour to find the truth. The history of philosophy is literally filed with competing formulations of the truth, which implicate assumptions on a host of interrelated issues ranging from the relationship between the truth and the world; whether indeed there is a mind-independent world (that can be known); how indeed the structures of natural languages gauge and meaningfully expose the truth; the metaphysical underpinning of any truth assertion, and how the so-called distinction between the thinking subject and object are to be bridged, if at all. Mostly scientists, and those disposed to scientific-like formulations of the truth, are oblivious to all of this and often respond with a gaping yawn at such quibbles.

Part of the problem lies in the distinctive nature of philosophical discourse. Philosophy is a second order discipline that always wants to have a look at what lurks underneath the rug, or what goes on behind the stage. Philosophers aren’t satisfied with merely finding the most efficient ways of keeping the rug clean or operating a smooth production; philosophers want to know what the rug is! Now most people don’t care to ask this question because it is, after all, just obviously a rug. It is, as it were, an uninteresting question. I mean really who cares?! Well Plato cared. He cared about being able to apprehend the rug itself as opposed to one’s perceptions of the rug. Plato had noticed (he wasn’t the first to notice this, however) that appearances vary from person to person and from time to time. He also noticed that we address the items of the world that occupy our mind as if they are eternal and constant. The point being that there must be some enduring thingness that survives these relative changes if we continue to refer to any such item as that thing that it is, namely the table, person, dog, star, and so on. Plato got to this “conclusion” by exposing abounding contradictions; for instance, Elly is both beautiful and ugly, for John has issued the first statement, and Mary the second. But Elly can’t be both beautiful and ugly since being beautiful contradicts being ugly. So Elly can’t be both of these things, anymore than a piece of string can be both long and short, or a man can be both strong and weak (do you find my examples to be sexists? 😉 )  In come the distinction between appearances and reality. Appearances are ephemeral; whilst reality is eternal. Appearances don’t speak to the thing itself, but rather to how that thing appears to the human mind under certain conditions – so Elly can be ugly to Mary and beautiful to John because the statement speaks to “Elly” or the appearance of Elly, as opposed to Elly herself. (Ummm what happened to Elly? Where’d she go? Does she not exist?) The thing itself, however, cannot be apprehended by mere perception. This is where things become hazy. Plato argued that the world of appearance – this one, the one we live in – is the world of appearance from which one can glean only partial and relative truths – is distinct from the intelligible world – some “other” realm or “world” or sphere of human understanding where the items that make up reality are true to their essence, enduring in a manner unadulterated by the human condition or the physical circumstances of the perceptible world. You may disagree with Plato’s metaphysics, but notice that if we are to rely on the results of scientific inquiry, we’d better be sure of the domain of its heir. And if Plato is right, scientific inquiry pertains to asking questions about the hows and whys of this world; the world of mere appearance. As complex as this enterprise may be answers apply only within a narrow field of assessment conditioned on the breadth and depth of the understanding of the laws that govern the behaviour of sensible objects in this field of perceptible things. The more we know of the conditions that sustain certain perceivable events, the more enduring the assessment and assent to a given truth about the world. You have noticed how science changes it’s “mind” about its understanding and explanation of events all the time, right?! So the scientific paradigm is limited in scope, namely it is limited to the objects of the physical, ephemeral and perceptible world, and the breadth and depth of scientific understanding and discovery. It would seem, therefore, that the conclusions of scientific inquiry are not conclusive!

So to my friend, and all those who entertain the bias that indiscriminately favours the science paradigm, don’t forget your boundaries!

What is Philosophy?

My initial search began with the question: what is philosophy? Soon this warped into auxiliary questions regarding the history and scope of philosophy, apropos methods of conducting philosophy and hence the astute concern raised by Astra amongst “official” academic philosophers and exile of mere partisan philosophers. The New School organized this panel discussion asking not the most fundamental question, what is philosophy, but its more socio-politically loaded variant, Does Philosophy Still Matter? After all, the New School is like no other. It is interesting to see how philosophers from different schools of thought have a different take on what philosophy actually is and what it’s worth is, if any – especially when construed in terms of utility-value. These speakers are brilliant in their own right, having contributed volumes of scholarship, offered work and talks of remarkable inspiration and with a breathe and depth of knowledge rarely encountered.

Does Philosophy Still Matter? New School

Moral Tolerance

Moral tolerance is a deeply misunderstood notion that hides behind the emotively disingenuous pretence of individual liberty, autonomy and respect. Moral tolerance tends to be associated with democratically entrench values pertaining to difference, openness, individuality and the like. These are cherished noble ideals. Indeed moral tolerance means that the beliefs and practices of other individuals (and nations) be respected and condoned irrespective of whether one finds oneself sympathetic to or in agreement with these. Moral tolerance renders moral beliefs and practices epistemically inept. That is, all moral beliefs and practices are tolerated irrespective of truth and justification. Morally, the argument must then be that tolerance is practiced for the sake of some higher moral good. What is that good? This good is “individual liberty, autonomy and respect”. There, of course, remains the question, “Are individual liberty, autonomy and respect goods that are pursued for their own sake or for the sake of some higher good?”

Individual liberty though distinct from the notion of freedom cannot really be made meaningful without it. It is in reference to the meaning of freedom that certain kinds of liberties are said to follow (justifiably?). For instance, a negative concept of freedom argues that one is free to the extent that no extrinsic obstacles stand in the way of acting thus and so. The liberties that follow from this include the absence from constraint to pursue education such that it is open to one and all irrespective of religion, sex or race. Other examples include access to public roads or services where no special permission is required for the use thereof. However, a positive concept of freedom argues that one is free to the extent that conditions are such that one can pursue said education which is otherwise open to one and all, and can actually use public roads and services. For instance, someone may be negatively free to go to college and wish to, yet not have the economic means to do so. The liberties that follow from this include providing circumstances and/or physical conditions that make this possible. Quoting Berlin, the negative concept of liberty aims at answering the question, “What is the area within which the subject – a person or group of persons – is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” whilst the positive concept aims at answering the question, “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” (1969, pp. 121-22).

In a very real way, the concept of freedom already renders the notion of moral tolerance problematic. Imagine that someone gets it into his/her head to cheat on the exam, call him Happy, the introduction of college policies to inhibit the student’s choice would be to constrain the student’s freedom. Happy is negatively free iff his choice of action is tolerated. Imagine also that a young man, going by the name Will, born to fascist parents proficient in the use of fire arms and adopting home learning practices rear their child to believe that others are a violent and unnecessary intrusion upon his/her freedom and that any self-respecting individual would fire at will against those who dare “infiltrate his castle”. Will is negatively free to the extent that no obstacles stand in the way of making good on his volition and he is also positively free since his parents have actually provided him with the means by which he can put his volition into practice.

Yet, College policy against cheating rests on the argument that establishes cheating as a form of deceit, and that “intentional deception (however voluntary) is wrong”. One argument against “intentional deception” interestingly enough rests on the concept of autonomy. This will be explored next. The point is that because intentional deceit is wrong, no one should be permitted to cheat on exams. Hence, teachers, administrators and fellow students should not be tolerant with respect to such choices. Will has been raised in rather questionable circumstances (is it also morally questionable?) and has been bombarded with a host of “false beliefs” (e.g. “other people are a violent and unnecessary intrusion” is false), which will insight him to act in a certain way. But when and if Will decides to murder the mailman because s/he apparently invaded his castle his action should not be tolerated. It should not be tolerated both because murder is wrong and because the reasons on which his action rest are mistaken/false. Moral tolerance is not therefore condoned in this case because the acts in question were an infringement upon the freedoms of others (advocates of moral tolerance may want to argue Will would not be permitted to commit murder because this would violate the higher good (liberty, autonomy or respect?) upon which moral tolerance rests) but because these actions either are or rested upon falsehoods. In comes the need for criterion of moral judgment. The implication that ensues is that tolerance is not adopted for the sake of liberty, it is adopted iff the truth-value is unattainable or the action is morally neutral or inconsequential. These two scenarios are neither beyond judgment, and for this reason it makes sense to say that they should not be tolerated, nor do they have negligible consequences.

Autonomy is another misunderstood concept. The etymology comprises two Greek words “auto” meaning “self” and “nomy” from the “nomos” meaning “rule” or “law”.  Literally the meaning is self-ruled and is often, and for good reason, disassociated with “heteronomy” derived from the words “heteron” meaning “other”and“nomos” again. What is the difference between being “self-ruled” and “ruled-by-others”? One is self-ruled in virtue of the fact that s/he is an agent who can initiate action as an expression of his/her free will. So the lack of autonomy or someone who is heteronymous is prone to act not from his/her own will. Advocates of moral tolerance argue that moral autonomy requires that whatever the outcome of my beliefs one must have the power to act upon them. This would seem to suggest that once again the truth-value of the beliefs one has as well as the truth-value of the conclusion one thereby derives is irrelevant to the extent to which one can be described as autonomous. If this is the case, then indeed, moral tolerance must follow necessarily. What is the seat of choice then, wherefrom does the so-called manifestation of one’s choices spring such that they can be called “mine” or such that the true expression of the agent’s will follows?

Siding with Immanuel Kant on this matter, it would seem that the seat of autonomous choice resides in reason. Reason is that faculty that enables one to transcend the effects of the various causal influences (efficient causes) that detract from one’s ability to make choices that can ultimately be called his/her own. When Happy decided to cheat on the exam was he motivated by socially cultivated values pertaining to “success” and its extrinsic measure “the good grade” or was it the result of Happy’s ability to transcend whatever social, and/or personal influences that ultimately drove him to adopt this action? We may never really know. Still, it makes sense to say that only once these “foreign” causal influences are factored out of the picture can one be sure that a decision is free from compulsion of “other” or outside factors. Accepting this, it follows that there can be no autonomy short of judgment where Reason is the means by which it is fostered. To make judgments that can be considered voluntary, one must have the right to demand truth preserving policies as well as unadulterated access to information pertinent to one’s aim to determine the fate of one’s own life. The flipside of this view is that when judgments are rendered null and void in the name of moral tolerance the agent is ultimately asked to blindly accept the beliefs and actions of others, namely not to judge them. Hence, one must also have the right to judge the beliefs and actions of others to the extent that these rest on or derive falsehoods. I am “my own person” and “determine the fate of my own life” to the extent that I can make informed choices based on truth preserving mechanisms and have at the same time the freedom to challenge the merit of the beliefs and actions of others. By implication, strict moral tolerance would impede autonomy.

Regarding Happy, notice that the autonomy of the teacher (as well as the institution and fellow students) is jeopardized since the teacher wanting to be fair makes the decision to give Happy a B in the course, when surely had she known that Happy cheated she would have given him an F instead. So this information is concealed from view precisely because Happy wants to determine the outcome of the teacher’s choice for her.

Respect is different when applied as if to say, “agents have rights” and different when used to underscore “person”. Clearly moral tolerance would wish to preserve the forum in which one can pursue his/her difference (whether religiously, socially, economically, racially or epistemically determined). Hence, respect for those who advocate moral tolerance just means to respect an agent’s right to x, y, z irrespective of race, religion etc. as well as the right to be protected against the imposing will of other groups that threaten the expression of the agent’s/groups difference. The first problem with this would be an infinite regress that would challenge the very backbone of such rights, at least in principle. In principle a taxonomy chart could be provided whereby categories and subcategories, species and genera thereof would be provided cross referenced and the works in order to account for all known differences between groups and individuals such that protective rights would be assigned to the one over and against the other (and vice versa).

More significantly, respect would only be pursued in the name of each individual difference and would find expression as such. This perspective is somewhat demeaning. Indeed, this perspective is contrary to commonplace ideas about respect that are so intuitive to us that it is taken for granted. We respect moms not in virtue of being mom and we respect our teacher not in virtue of being a teacher, indeed we respect a black man not in virtue of being black. The point is that we do not lavish respect on people because they are different (belong to different groups (social, political, religious, etc.), have different properties (are Caucasian, black etc.) or have different ideologies (are pacifists, etc.). Nor however, do we respect a black man despite being black nor still do we respect mom despite being mom. In other words, we don’t want to cancel out whatever makes one different and thereby claim that this difference will not be permitted to jeopardize the rightful hearing of, consideration of, entitlements of, or treatment of such persons. We want to say that we respect mom because of what she brings to the modes of being mom and that we respect a black man because of what he brings to the mode of being a man and so on. Take the example of a teacher. If a teacher is respected in virtue of being a teacher, then all teachers are ipso facto worthy of respect. Surely there are teachers unworthy of respect; indeed, were there no such teachers the use of the term would become redundant. By this I do not mean that the so-called unworthy-of-respect-teacher should be deprived of respect tout court, since this person may indeed be a respectful citizen, mother and so on. However, if this teacher, despite formal qualifications and the like, is rude, austere, abusive, offensive, etc. a student may very well be justified not to respect her as a teacher.

Selective Bibliography

  1. Cooper, 1978, “Moral Relativism,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 3: 97-108.
  2. Hatch, 1983, Culture and Morality: The Relativity of Values in Anthropology, New York: Columbia University Press.
  3. Rachels, 1999, “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism,” The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 3rd ed., New York: Random House. 20-36.
  4. W. Cook, 1999, Morality and Cultural Differences, New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Isaiah Berlin, 2002, Liberty, Henry Hardy (ed.), Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Foot, 1978, Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 96-109. Original Publication Date: 1958.

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