"Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." -Ludwig Wittgenstein

"Dire que le monde ne vaut rien, que cette vie ne vaut rien, et donner pour preuve le mal est absurde, car si cela ne vaut rien, de quoi le mal prive-t-il?"
-Simone Weil

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Belief II

In addition to the interesting responses from Swanditch on the last Belief post, I received an email response from a friend living abroad in a rather homogenous and conservative religious community. She shared her thoughts on the difficulty of maintaining a self-identity in a society where one was not able (or allowed) to continue one's own practices (religious or otherwise). She ended by noting some of her frustration at the closed nature of the society in which she currently lives: "I can't help but wonder what the state of our world is, when such a large religious population cannot conceive of accepting the validity of another person's [beliefs, especially] since [the community's religious] perspective often dictates a whole host of life choices, not simply private religious practices."

Her comments raised a number of issues for me. First, the benefit of a pluralistic society is the ability to find a community with which to practice. Maintaining a distinct sense of self in the absence of such a community (i.e. a community that shares ones language, culture, practices) is difficult, if not impossible. Second, when one considers traditional religious communities in other (even remote) parts of the world, one wonders how they relate, say, to globalization, colonialization, and wester hegemony. That is to say, should we understand their rigidity part of a long-standing faith-tradition or as a distinctly modern response to these factors (i.e. as the foreign homologue of christian fundamentalism in the US).

The most interesting question, however, comes in the last sentence of her response (see above). Different forms of God-Talk are intertwined with "a whole host of life choices." And, in fact, I think it would be incredibly difficult to draw any sort of clean distinction between private and public practices. Even those practices which we might be tempted to treat as private (personal prayer, meditation, alter bows, etc.) are most often anchored in the very public practices of a larger community (corporate prayer, group mediation, ceremonial commemorations, etc). Perhaps one unique feature of modern pluralism is the rise in personal hybridizations that combine forms of practice from various communities. This sort of hybridization further fragments God-talk in that we are unsure of how to locate each individual in relation to various religious traditions. We might even wonder if such private conceptions of god-talk are intelligible at all. (Curiously, we can trace this notion of purely personal or private conceptions of the Divine - at least in the west - directly to the Protestant Reformation.)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Recent Work

Thought I'd post some of my recent stuff online, in case anyone is interested.

Here are two philosophy papers. (Click link and scroll down page.) The first one outlines concerns with Christine Korsgaard's recent work on the relationship between ethics and agency. The second presents an interpretation of the relationship between Classical and Romantic Art in Hegel's Lectures on Fine Art. In the somewhat unlikely event that someone does read either of them, I'd love to have any feedback you'd be willing to offer.

Though unrelated to the standard topics of this blog, I thought I'd include a link to recent pottery that I've thrown.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

On Certainty.

"It is not true that a mistake merely gets more and more improbable as we pass from [knowing about] the planet to my own hand. No: at some point it has ceased to be conceivable. This is already suggested by the following: if it were not so, it would also be conceivable that we should be wrong in every statement about physical objects; that any we ever make are mistaken.// So is the hypothesis possible, that all the things around us don't exist? Would that not be like the hypothesis of our having miscalculated all our calculations?" - Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §54-55

This makes it look as though the skeptic is really asking:

"Is it possible, right now, that I am not speaking a language? (That my words do not refer.)"

Or, we can connect it with Heidegger's assertion in Being and Time that the skeptic is in the grip of suicide: The skeptic doubts, e.g. that there is such a thing as "calculating," distinct from "miscalculating." He doubts the practices the he must engage in to live his life.

With the skeptic's questions, the wheels come off the cart. If we accept the skeptic's doubts, then we have no valid criteria of meaning. But that would mean that our own words and actions are non-sensical. Does this show that his worries are unfounded? After all, isn't this precisely what he is worried about?

But then we might wonder with Wittgenstein: what is the source of the skeptic's worry? Should we treat it as a philosophical doubt or is his concern based in a psychological disturbance? (i.e. Is there a reason behind the skeptic's question or only a cause?) Is the skeptic's concern really knowledge or is he discontent with the state of affairs more generally? (He doubt is a manifestation of his estrangement from his own language and actions.)

Friday, March 20, 2009


God, it's been a terribly long time since I've written on this thing. Two things have prompted me to write again:
(1) Encouragement from a friend who said she actually enjoys reading my blog postings.
(2) Sheer embarrassment when I girl I like read one of my previous blog posts. Ironic that this would spur me on, but I think there is something important about owning one's thoughts, even when they might be embarrassing. Moreover, how can one correct one's thinking without making them explicit and subjecting them to criticism (both by oneself and others)?

With that, here it goes.

I've been thinking lately about Charles Taylor's recent book, A Secular Age, which tells a story about the decline of religious faith in the west. I think that Taylor leaves out a crucial element in this process: the gradual decline in the intelligibility of God-Talk. We are, it would seem to me, no longer certain what it means to speak about God or a belief in God. At least, there is no definite cultural consensus about what this sort of talk amounts to: what counts as belief in God. Certainly, there are communities that preserve certain understandings of what God-Talk means, but as we've become more self-conscious in the west about our conceptions of God, the number of interpretations has dramatically increased. Unlike in the pre-reformation period, when the Catholic Church provided for the public something like an authoritative interpretation of God-Talk, today there is no such centralized authority. The proliferation of protestant denominations and the presence of non-western and alternative religious traditions has creating a society that is vastly more pluralistic than a hundred years ago (not to mention 500 years ago). This pluralism cannot BUT put strain on the language-usage of particular communities: more than in the past, members of a community must preserve the criteria of correctness that correspond to their particular language-game.

In reading through Wittgenstein's On Certain today I was struck by this passage: "The other, if he is acquainted with the language-game, must be able to imagine how one may know something..." (OC, #18) We might replace the word "know" here with "believe." When read that way, the passage seems to point again to a difficulty with modern God-talk. In a pluralistic society, what criteria does one use in order to understand the meaning of another person's belief? That is to say, how can another person's God-talk be intelligible to us in the absence of a consensus about the criteria for belief in God? This becomes particularly poignant when we imagine two people who are member of different religious communities. The question is: what would it mean to make another person's God-talk intelligible, while at the same time holding onto the criteria of correctness that are part of one's own language-game?


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Richard Rorty

Sorry for the long hiatus in my blogging. As some of you know, I've just started graduate school and that has been consuming a large amount of my time. I'm hoping to begin posting again fairly frequently, but mostly regarding what I'm currently working on. This may make the posts somewhat less accessible - given that they will make reference to particular texts and thinkers - but hopefully they will still be of some interest to folks.

This is a response to Richard Rorty’s essay “Private Irony, Liberal Hope” in his book “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.” (Many of the thoughts are also related to an unpublished manuscript by another author, though I will not discuss this text explicitly here.)

Rorty draws a distinction between the metaphysician and the ironist. Metaphysicians search for something like a universal final vocabulary - that is to say, they search for the “most adequate description of reality.” Ironists, on the other hand, reject the idea that our final vocabularies can ever be grounded, that there can ever be something like a “most accurate description of reality” (or, even, that there could ever be criteria for determining what counts as something of this sort). Instead, they hope to expand their repertoire of final vocabularies, such that they can “get inside” as many Weltanschauung (worldviews) as possible. Moreover, these ironists craft their own final vocabulary in light of the diverse vocabularies they encounter as well as their own socially-inherited vocabulary. In what follows, I question the validity of Rorty’s distinction and show that his misreading of the philosophical tradition on which he leans ultimately undercuts the appeal of something like the “ironic viewpoint.”

Let’s begin by examining Rorty’s motivation for drawing a distinction between metaphysicians and ironists. There are, I think, two principle reasons that Rorty wants to draw such a distinction. First, he is impressed with the idea that finite beings are bound by our vocabulary, or to put it in other terms, bound by our perspective. There is, as a result, no ultimate court of appeals that can (authoritatively) resolve conflicts between these competing vocabularies. As such, any criticism is a criticism from yet another perspective. He concludes from this that there is, strictly speaking, nothing like a “most adequate description of reality” or even something like some vocabularies being “better” than others (although he often uses terms that would indicate the contrary). At the end, we have perhaps, only recourse to an aesthetic and a maximization criteria. Thus, we can say that a particular vocabulary is at most a personally appropriate vehicle for self-(re)creation, and provides individuals with the greatest possible freedom to pursue such vocabularies privately. Second, he wants to account for our changing commitments. That is to say, his primary dispute with the metaphysician is that the metaphysician is a blowhard. That is to say, although the metaphysicians conceptions are charging, this change is viewed as a progression towards an ultimately stable end - an accurate conception of the world. Moreover, the metaphysician assumes not only that the telos of his trajectory is Truth, but that his current conception of the world is superior to other competing conceptions. So what Rorty wants to preserve is an openness to genuine change, to a radical shift in our conception of the world. The ironist is supposedly open to such uncanniness.

(To be continued... stay tuned.)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

bell hooks, feminism, and Nietzsche

I should preface this post by saying that I am quite unqualified to be making the sorts of observations that follow. I just finished bell hooks' book, "Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center," but have read very little else in the domain of feminist thought. Furthermore, I don't have any great knowledge of Nietzsche. Nevertheless, I thought I'd try to put down some of the thoughts that have been floating around in my head.


What sort of fruitful interaction could there be between feminist theory and Nietzsche? As I read bell hooks, it was simply impossible for me to get the Genealogy of Morals out of my head. I think Nietzsche's conception of Slave Morality and Ressentiment might have much to offer feminist politics. Of course feminist theory wouldn't hold back it's critique of Nietzsche's revaluation program either.

At first, one might see Nietzsche and Feminist Critique as diametrically opposed. Superficially, the following dialogue points might be laid out:

N: Feminism represents a paradigm case of slave morality. Women are weak and feminists are equivalent to priests. That is to say because women lack the strength to create their own values system, feminists resent the dominant value system and try to force society to feel guilty and ashamed of their strength (and the other warrior characteristics that Nietzsche valorizes). At the extreme, feminists try to make men ashamed of being men. Furthermore, their alternative value system, precisely because it is reactionary in nature and stems from ressentiment , is aesthetically inferior.

FC: Nietzsche represents classic aristocratic chauvinism. His valorization of strength, and lauditory portrayal of warrior characteristics, are justifications for oppression - both historically and now.

However, I think we can move beyond these initial readings towards a more fruitful dialogue. Nietzsche has something important to say to feminist: reactionary value systems are inferior. That is to say, if one's motivation for acting in a certain way is only to be contrarian, to spite the status quo, then such action is of inferior value to an act that drives from an inner motivation, from one's own vital energies. When we boil it down I think this is what Nietzsche means by strength, not simply force, or the ability to dominate others, but the power to create (birth) values that one can affirm oneself - indepent of others in the sense that they are not affirmed simply as a means of responding to the dominate culture. Although I'm sure this is somewhat of a rough sketch (probably wrong, but I could imagine someone saying it), we could say that difference feminism is often reactionary in nature - i.e. "Sexist culture values male characteristics - strength, force, reason; therefore, we must revalue female characteristics - passivity, peace-making, and emotion." I see bell hooks and other types of feminists (post-structuralist feminists?) as advocating a values system more compatible with Nietzsche critique of morality: "We must preform a radical revaluation of values. We cannot simply throw out certain traits as negative, and introduce others as positive, instead we must rebuild a radical new values system based on our foundational goal: to eliminate oppression. And eliminating oppression might call for peace-making in some situations, but require force in others.

Likewise, I think bell hooks, and feminists more generally, play an important role in drawing out some of the more troubling questions that face Nietzsche (especially particularly shallow interpretations that are overly focused on a more literal interpretation of his Slave-Master narrative, and his praise of the warrior values system). His myth-like story about master-slave morality fails to account for protest as a legitimate tool that can be weilded with strength and power. The fact that women have chosen to use protest rather than immediately overturn the established values system is justified historically and strategically. Since women have been historically denied access to education, and the socio-political-commercial sphere, in anything but a limited fashion, their attempts to uproot the dominant values system has come gradually - the more power and education women have gained, the more potential they have to expand their power and overturn the dominant values system. Furthermore, since women are not simply concerned with creating an alternative values system, but rather transforming our current system - even if this means taking it down to the ground. In other words, feminists do not want to create a new, separate, culture (they cannot deny that they are historically part of this culture), they want to transform our shared culture. Thus, far from being reactionary, political protest is a means of transforming the culture from the inside out.

I'd like to make one historical note that I think is important for contextualizing Nietzsche's text and it's relation to feminism. We must note that the master-slave story is polemical. In fact, it is itself a sort of protest. That is to say, in the story Nietzsche portrays the culturally dominant values system of his day (chirstianity) as weak, and contrasts it with an alternative picture (something more like the war-like greeks?). Nietzsche, therefore, in writing this story, is NOT directly applying force to over throw the dominant values system (nor is he simply reacting to it). Instead, he is introducing an alternative picture through writing that he hopes will transform people within the dominant culture from the inside out: not because they feel guilt and shame with regard to who they are (as christians), i.e. the point is not that they should not feel shame bcause they are weak, but instead he hopes that they will be drawn in by the aesthetic appeal of the alternative picture of life that he presents.


In any case, these are some of the thoughts that have been rolling around in my head. I realize a lot of you readers know leagues more about this stuff than I do, so please do chime in and correct away.