Monday, November 17, 2014
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Oh, and by the way, if you don't know who Ned Block is, you should: Ned Block (Ph.D., Harvard), Silver Professor of Philosophy, Psychology and Neural Science, went to NYU in 1996 from MIT where he was Chair of the Philosophy Program. He works in philosophy of mind and foundations of neuroscience and cognitive science and is currently writing a book on attention. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society, has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Language and Information, a Sloan Foundation Fellow, a faculty member at two National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institutes and two Summer Seminars, the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Science Foundation; and a recipient of the Robert A. Muh Alumni Award in Humanities and Social Science from MIT. And, oh yeah, he is a 3QD reader!
New posts below.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Sara Lipton in the New York Review of Books:
In 1940 the Nazis released a propaganda film called The Eternal Jew. The film claimed to show the Jews in their “original state,” “before they put on the mask of civilized Europeans.” Stagings of Jewish rituals were interspersed with scenes of yarmulke- and caftan-wearing Jews shuffling down crowded alleys, all meant to show the benighted nature of Jewish life. Above all, the filmmakers focused on Jewish faces. They trained their cameras in lingering close-up on their subjects’ eyes, noses, beards, and mouths, confident that the sight of certain stereotypical features would arouse responses of loathing and contempt.
The designer of the film’s poster evidently agreed, avoiding more obvious symbols of Jewish identity (skull-cap, sidecurls, Star of David) in favor of a single dark, hook-nosed, fleshy face. Indeed, the poster hardly needed the accompanying title. In Europe in 1940, this representation of Jewishness was widespread: similar depictions of Jews could be seen on posters and in pamphlets, newspapers, even children’s books.
This image of the Jew, however, was far from “eternal.” Though anti-Semitism is notoriously “the longest hatred,” until 1000 CE, there were no easily distinguishable Jews of any kind in Western imagery, let alone the stereotypical swarthy, hook-nosed Jew. Earlier monuments and manuscripts did depict Hebrew prophets, Israelite armies, and Judaic kings, but they were identifiable only by context, in no way singled out as different from other sages, soldiers, or kings. Even nefarious Jewish characters, such as the priests (pontifices) who urged Pilate to crucify Christ in the Egbert Codex (circa 980), were visually unremarkable; they required labels to identify them as Jewish.
George Packer in The New Yorker:
A summer afternoon at the Reichstag. Soft Berlin light filters down through the great glass dome, past tourists ascending the spiral ramp, and into the main hall of parliament. Half the members’ seats are empty. At the lectern, a short, slightly hunched figure in a fuchsia jacket, black slacks, and a helmet of no-color hair is reading a speech from a binder. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and the world’s most powerful woman, is making every effort not to be interesting.
“As the federal government, we have been carrying out a threefold policy since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis,” Merkel says, staring at the binder. Her delivery is toneless, as if she were trying to induce her audience into shifting its attention elsewhere. “Besides the first part of this triad, targeted support for Ukraine, is, second, the unceasing effort to find a diplomatic solution for the crisis in the dialogue with Russia.” For years, public speaking was visibly painful to Merkel, her hands a particular source of trouble; eventually, she learned to bring her fingertips together in a diamond shape over her stomach.
Michael Schulson in Salon:
Well, because state-building was imbued with religious ideology. Every state ideology before the modern period was essentially religious. Trying to extract religion from political life would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail. Things like road-building were regarded as a sort of sacred activity.
Politics was imbued with religious feeling. The prophets of Israel, for example, were deeply political people. They castigated their rulers for not looking after the poor; they cried out against the system of agrarian injustice. Jesus did the same, Mohammed and the Quran do the same. Sometimes, religion permeates the violence of the state, but it also offers the consistent critique of that structural and martial violence.
Is it possible to disentangle that critiquing role from the role of supporting state structures?
I think in the West we have peeled them apart. We’ve separated religion and politics, and this was a great innovation. But so deeply embedded in our consciousness is the desire to give our lives some meaning and significance that no sooner did we do this than we infused the new nation-state with a sort of quasi-religious fervor. If you regard the sacred as something for which we are willing to give our lives, in some senses the nation has replaced God, because it’s now not acceptable to die for religion, but it is admirable to die for your country.
Read the rest here.
Justin Allen in Mosaic:
JA: You write about these murders and the crisis caused by who is known as the Oakland County Child Killer. You also touch on how these murders contributed to racial tension in the area.
WSW: There were other abductions of younger women in towns around us, which were attributed to anonymous Black men. Increasing unemployment in the area gave way to a fear of violence bubbling over from the city.
At the same time, a lot of Black people associated with the automobile industry were moving into the suburbs. These were college-educated people who wanted their kids to be in excellent public school systems. This created another level of anxiety. Sometimes these people were more affluent than the neighbors they were moving in with, which didn’t make sense to those with more provincial ideas about race and class.
Look at them looking like they don’t know
how they look. Why don’t they just stay where they
stay? Or drag sideways across our fields, come
at us zigzag over the rows we cut.
We made a place they know they should not stay
for a reason. They were nothing back when
we started from nothing, or we could not
have worked so hard to be right. They never
do what they need to do to be right. Who
knows? Someone might kill one. We tell them this
if they don’t run. Come on, try us, we say.
A city grows over the rows we cut.
Then they come at us. We stay for reasons.
They don’t understand right the way we do.
Chase Madar in The Nation (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson):
How to police the police is a question as old as civilization, now given special urgency by a St. Louis County grand jury’s return of a “no bill” of indictment for Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in his fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown. The result is shocking to many, depressingly predictable to more than a few.
Can the cops be controlled? It’s never been easy: according to one old sociological chestnut, the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is what defines modern government, and this monopoly is jealously protected against the second-guessing of puny civilians. All over the country, the issue of restraining police power is framed around the retribution against individual cops, from Staten Island to Milwaukee to Los Angeles. But is this the best way to impose discipline on law enforcement and roll back what even Republican appellate court appointees are calling rampant criminalization?
First, the big picture. Last year, the FBI tallied 461 “justifiable homicides” committed by law enforcement—justifiable because the Bureau assumes so, and the nation’s courts have not found otherwise. This is the highest number in two decades, even as the nation’s overall homicide rate continues to drop. Homicides committed by on-duty law enforcement make up 3 percent of the 14,196 homicides committed in the United States in 2013. A USA Todayanalysis of the FBI database found an average of about ninety-six police homicides a year in which a white officer kills a black person.
The FBI’s police homicide stats are fuzzy, and they are surely an undercount, given that they come from voluntary reports to the FBI from police departments all over the country. That the federal government does not keep a strict national tally shows just how seriously it takes this problem. A crowdsourced database has sprung up to fill the gap, as has a wiki-tabulation.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about these police killings, many of them of unarmed victims, is that our courts find them perfectly legal.
Angela Washko in Creative Time Reports:
When women and minorities who love games question why they are abused, poorly represented or made to feel out of place, self-identified gamers often respond with an age-old argument: “If you don’t like it, why don’t you make your own?” Those on the receiving end of this arrogant question are doing just that, reshaping the gaming landscape by independently designing their own critical games and writing their own cultural criticism. Organizations like Dames Making Games, game makers like Anna Anthropy, Molleindustria and Merritt Kopas and game writers like Leigh Alexander, Samantha Allen, Lana Polansky and others listed on The New Inquiry’s Gaming and Feminism Syllabus are becoming more and more visible and broadly distributed in opposition to an industry that cares much more about consumer sales data and profit than about cultural innovation, storytelling and diversity of voices.
What’s especially strange about the sexism present in WoW is that players not only come from diverse social, economic and racial backgrounds but are also, according to census data taken by the Daedalus Project, 28 years old on average. (“It’s just a bunch of 14-year-old boys trolling you” won’t cut it as a defense.) If #gamergate supporters need to respect this diversity, many non-gamers also need to accept that the dichotomy between the physical (real) and the virtual (fake) is dated; in game spaces, individuals perform their identities in ways that are governed by the same social relations that are operative in a classroom or park, though with fewer inhibitions. That’s why—instead of either continuing on quests to kill more baddies or declaring the game a trivial, reactionary space where sexists thrive and abandoning it—I embarked on a quest to facilitate conversations about discriminatory language in WoW’s public discussion channels. I realized that players’ geographic dispersion generates a population that is far more representative of American opinion than those of the art or academic circles that I frequent in New York and San Diego, making it a perfect Petri dish for conversations about women’s rights, feminism and gender expression with people who are uninhibited by IRL accountability.
Wendy Doniger reviews Richard H. Davis's The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography, in the NYRB:
How did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage in a battle, indeed, a particularly brutal, lawless, internecine war? It has taken a true gift for magic—or, if you prefer, religion, particularly the sort of religion in the thrall of politics that has inspired Hindu nationalism from the time of the British Raj to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi today.
The Gita (as it is generally known to its friends) occupies eighteen chapters of book 6 of the Mahabharata, an immense (over 100,000 couplets) Sanskrit epic. The text is in the form of a conversation between the warrior Arjuna, who, on the eve of an apocalyptic battle, hesitates to kill his friends and family on the other side, and the incarnate god Krishna, who acts as Arjuna’s charioteer (a low-status job roughly equivalent to a bodyguard) and persuades him to do it.
In his masterful new biography of the Gita—part of an excellent Princeton series dedicated to the lives of great religious books—Richard Davis, a professor of religion at Bard College, shows us, in subtle and stunning detail, how the text of the Gita has been embedded in one political setting after another, changing its meaning again and again over the centuries. For what the Gita was in its many pasts is very different from what it is today: the best known of all the philosophical and religious texts of Hinduism.
The Gita incorporates into its seven hundred verses many different sorts of insights, which people use to argue many different, often contradictory, ideas. We might divide them into two broad groups: what I would call the warrior’s Gita, about engaging in the world, and the philosopher’s Gita, about disengaging. The Gita’s theology—the god’s transfiguration of the warrior’s life—binds the two points of view in an uneasy tension that has persisted through the centuries.
Robert Irwin in The Independent:
The Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim – having defeated the Mamluks in two major battles in Syria and Egypt – entered Cairo in 1517. He celebrated his victory by watching the crucifixion of the last Mamluk sultan at the Zuwayla Gate. Then he presided over the systematic looting of Cairo’s cultural treasures. Among that loot was the content of most of Cairo’s great libraries. Arabic manuscripts were shipped to Istanbul and distributed among the city’s mosques. This is probably how the manuscript of Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange ended up in the library of the great mosque of Ayasofya. There it lay unread and gathering dust, a ragged manuscript that no one even knew existed, until 1933 when Hellmut Ritter, a German orientalist, stumbled across it and translated it into his mother tongue. An Arabic edition was belatedly printed in 1956.
In the 1990s, when I was working on my book The Arabian Nights: A Companion, I came across references to this story collection and, since it sounded very like The Arabian Nights (or, to give it its correct title, The Thousand and One Nights), I thought I ought to have a look at it. The stories in Tales of the Marvellous were indeed as fantastic and exotic as those in the Nights, and I felt as other scholars might feel if they had come across a missing part of The Canterbury Tales or a lost play by Shakespeare. The stories are very old, more than 1,000 years old, yet most of them are quite new to us. Some years later, I suggested to Malcolm Lyons, the translator of a recent edition of the Nights, that having completed that mighty task, he might consider translating Tales of the Marvellous. He sounded unenthusiastic and I thought no more about it. Then, last summer, he emailed to let me know that he had completed the translation. Now it has been published, meaning these stories can be read in English for the first time.
Dan Hurley in The New York Times:
On Sept. 25, 1990, James D. Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, and at the time the director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, wrote a letter to this paper making a prediction: “The ability to sequence DNA quickly and cheaply will also provide the technological basis for a new era in drug development.”
...If you read them now, the claims made for genomics in the 1990s sound a bit like predictions made in the 1950s for flying cars and anti-gravity devices,” Jack Scannell, an industry analyst, told me. But rather than speeding drug development, genomics may have slowed it down. So far it has produced fewer returns on greater investments. Scannell and Brian Warrington, who worked for 40 years inventing drugs for pharmaceutical companies, published a grim paper in 2012 that showed the plummeting efficiency of the pharmaceutical industry. They found that for every billion dollars spent on research and development since 1950, the number of new drugs approved has fallen by half roughly every nine years, meaning a total decline by a factor of 80.
...“I’ve done an about-face,” said Swinney, who estimates that more than 80 percent of research funding is still spent on target-based approaches. “The target-based research made possible by genomics is cool and fascinating,” he went on. But, he conceded, “you know what? We almost never use this information before we discover a drug. . . . This whole idea is too simplistic for the overall complexity of biology.”
Monday, November 24, 2014
by Carl Pierer
After dinner and upon noticing a stain, Abelard ejects: "Oh no, I look like a pig."
Bertha: "Well, and you've spilled sauce down your tie!"
Often an utterance means something over and above of what it literally says. Is it in such cases always possible to return to the "literal" meaning? Is it possible to sincerely answer the question "Do you think I'm fat?" with "You have nice feet" and only mean that the questioner has nice feet?
To capture and analyse what is going on in these cases, H.P. Grice introduces the term "implicature". Abelard's statement by itself is usually understood metaphorically; it is rather unlikely that he literally looks like a pig. More plausibly, he means that he looks messy – possibly because he spilled some sauce. This is an example of conventional implicature – an implicature associated with certain set phrases, where the implicature is not depended on the context in which the utterance is made. The second sentence, Bertha's utterance, also seems to carry a meaning above what she literally said. It seems that in this context Bertha suggests precisely the literal meaning of Abelard's sentence. This kind of implicature, which depends on the context, Grice calls conversational implicature.
On the face of it, Bertha's utterance is at best redundant or worse, it does not make sense. If Abelard is really implicating: "Oh no, I've spilled sauce down my tie", Bertha's repetition of this very fact does not add anything to the conversation. Although this happens all too often, it seems reasonable to suppose that usually people try to contribute to the conversation. In a meaningful exchange (whatever that means), people try to be constructive. This idea is captured by Grice in what is called the Cooperative Principle. Wayne Davis concisely puts the cooperative principle thusly:
"Cooperative Principle. Contribute what is required by the accepted purpose of the conversation."
For instance, if asked where to have lunch, a person will usually name a place. Another perfectly common reply is: "I'd like to have some lasagne". Yet, strictly speaking this does not answer the question. In fact, at first sight, it violates the cooperative principle: the purpose of this exchange is to figure out where to go for lunch, so saying what you want to have for lunch is not directly relevant. And still, it is a meaningful contribution, provided that we understand "I'd like to have some lasagne" as implicating "Somewhere where they serve lasagne".
Today I troll for a poem of humus
dark and rich as the French Roast
which always starts my day
and always is a gift
In this four billion year terrapoem
fungi, woodlouse and eelworms
spend millennia decomposing
in concert with nematodes
actinomycetes and protozoa
doling water and, with bacteria,
fix nitrogen in a scheme
age old and symbiotic,
while on it men
women and other animals
troll and plow,
think and sweat
—animals who draw their own life from it,
who build their lives upon it,
from which come their bones
and to which their bones
and breath go (come and go)
in intervals of comets
in this rambling walkabout
with friends who’ve shed
conceits together, dropping them
as one sloughs old clothes:
into the low pressure system of our lungs
comes new atmosphere, November cool
and in again
in a rhythm old but not antique
for which we thank our
lobe-finned fish progenitors
who learned to suck sweet gas to reap its oxygen
and in return (until we’re absolutely through)
we essentially reply with gusts of CO2
Heraclitus said that all is flux
or, I’d say, fire
the more we yearn
the more things move
they hotter burn
rivers fall by rules of space
obliged by banks that hem obedient livers in,
pulled, it seems, by tugging mass we acquiesce,
are dragged to bottom
— inclined to give, to toss
to push to swell and plunge
(by some dark scripts)
from Paradise to Sodom
by Jim Culleny
by Mara Naselli
When my children entered the gallery at the Grand Rapids Art Museum that contained Anila Quayyum Agha's installation work, Intersections, they took off at a run. The sound of their little feet filled the space. I felt that cinch of parental panic and scanned the room for what they might inadvertently destroy. The room was empty. Empty in the sense that it contained no objects, save the large wood cube illuminated by single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The gallery, about thirty-feet square, was transformed into something larger by the tapestry of shadow projected onto the walls. I hesitate to use the word sacred, but it was impossible not to feel a certain vastness. The contrast of light and dark created an immersive architecture. "You should have seen it when they were installing it," said the security guard. "The whole room spun."
Every September since 2009, Grand Rapids, Michigan, has hosted an open art contest called ArtPrize. Anyone can enter. Anyone can judge. Anyone can win. ArtPrize winners are elected by popular vote. The rules have been adjusted each year, but the basic idea has remained intact: bring art to the public, let the public judge art.
Grand Rapids is a small, quiet city. But when ArtPrize opens, art is everywhere: parking lots, rooftops, bars, bridges, abandoned buildings, churches, even the river. This reserved city transforms into a minimetropolis of raucous, unedited expression.
The cultural context of ArtPrize—that is, the culture of Grand Rapids, Michigan—bears mentioning. When ArtPrize began, I had just moved here from Chicago, and so I watched with some interest at what looked like a large-scale democratic experiment. Some called it a rich kid's art party (the founder, Rick DeVos, is the grandson of the co-founder of Amway). But I thought of it as an experiment in civic discourse, where good art and bad art would duke it out through the intelligent discernment of public opinion. In many ways, the location of ArtPrize made perfect sense. The city has a venerable history in furniture making and design. There's a vibrant arts community here, a grassroots artists' collective, a sculpture garden, a symphony, a ballet, an opera, and a fine art museum—all this in a town of fewer than 200,000. The community in many ways is steeped in arts funded by local philanthropic families such as the DeVoses. Grand Rapids is also conservative and Christian. The fact that ArtPrize was in a very red region of a blue state made the democratic aspect of the contest all the more interesting to me. Taste, culture, and politics would converge as the public would play patron.
Do watch the videos here, especially the ants one.
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
Scott Schuman is in India. On the 6th of November, he announced that he would be posting to his immensely popular fashion blog "The Sartorialist" from the cities of Mumbai, New Delhi, and Varanasi. I must confess that for a few minutes, I cursed my luck at being in the deep South and not on the fashionable streets of Mumbai and Delhi, where Mr.Schuman would most likely be lurking, camera in hand. Surely being spotted by Mr.Schuman would be the rightful validation of my many years of changing clothes four times in a row in order to get to the library? After all, academics, especially those in the fields of cultural studies and contemporary socio-cultural anthropology need necessarily to be fashionable I had often argued to myself. (Let the convenience of this categorization be conveniently ignored for now.)
My sartorialism is highly suspect in any case; dressing up for particular environments has always been a particularly harrowing task. Fashion never came easy. My sensibilities were shaped, first and foremost by a socialist secular republic of few choices and many cut corners. During childhood, a popular sitcom lampooned the state of the market thus; the titular character of Wagle Ki Duniya (Wagle's World), Mr.Wagle marks a festive occasion by procuring large quantities of the same bolt of cloth out of which emerge clothes for himself, his wife, his children, and the drawing room curtains. Despite this situation, I did marvel at the effortless beauty of my parents' and their friends' wardrobes, chiffon and polyester saris and factory uniforms. I, however, thanks to particularly unfashionable school uniforms and awkward teenage years, had no possibility of displaying either ingenuity or taste.
Graduate life in America brought forth another set of quandaries. While well schooled by now and comfortable in "Western" clothing, I longed uncharacteristically for loose cottons and salwar kameezes and allowed myself in the Texas heat to switch back and forth, even as I kept away from events conducted by the Indian Cultural Association. Neither their Diwalis nor their Holis held any attraction to my thoroughly disdainful anomic self. But those few kurtas declared my allegiance to some culturally specific India, and brought me attention nevertheless. Many years later, I was told that people had seen me as performing ethnicity for their benefit.
by Sarah Firisen
Boys looking at girls, and then reacting with admiration; what could be more natural? In movie after movie a barrage of wolf whistles following Sofia Loren and Marilyn Monroe as they sashay down the street are meant as innocent signs of appreciation. To today’s men, who often react with a distinct lack of sympathy to modern women’s complaints about callcalling and its associated behavior, what we’re complaining about is no different, at least in intent, to behavior that 40 years ago was seen as a badge of honor for attractive women. I have no idea whether it was really felt and taken that way by women in past generations, perhaps that is nothing more than a romantic rose colored view of what was clearly felt as harassment even then. I truly have no idea. What I do know is how the modern forms of this behavior looks and feel to me and any woman I’ve ever asked about it.
If you’re on some form of social media these days, it’s almost impossible that you haven’t witnessed some of the latest volleys in the catcall wars. There has been a steady stream of women trying to fight back in one way or another: one of my personal favorites, a young lady who handed out cards to the men harassing her on the street trying to educate them, almost always without success, about how it felt to be the recipient of that attention. Another one I really like is http://stoptellingwomentosmile.com/; because what could really be more innocuous than telling a woman how pretty she would be if only she would smile, or telling her “hey, smile, it could be worse”? Except, how the hell do you know it could be worse? Perhaps someone just died. Perhaps I just got a cancer diagnosis. Or maybe I have really bad cramps. Or maybe, it’s none of your business whether I smile or not.
And of course, one of the more infamous recent examples, where a woman (an actress hired for the video) walks around New York for 10 hours with a cameraman surreptitiously recording what this woman has to put up with. She doesn’t say anything to these men, she doesn’t look at them, she’s not dressed in provocative clothing and she engages with them in no way, and yet she is harassed over 100 times. As female Facebook friend after friend reposted this video, there was a very predictable explosion of comment threads and some got pretty nasty. One friend posted an interesting observation, which I’ve now tried to verify for myself: she says that when she’s all dressed up (as she often is quite beautifully), she actually attracts less attention from men. But it’s when she’s in her sweats, no makeup, hair unwashed that she can’t seem to shake the catcalls, the men following her, harassing her.
by Brooks Riley
by Charlie Huenemann
Some years back my musicologist friend introduced me to the charming world of gramophones. (A brief history may be in order: before there were iPods and YouTube, there were CDs; before that, there were vinyl records, still very much in vogue among hipsters today; and before that - from roughly 1895 to 1950 - there were thick and heavy shellac records that were to be played at 78 revolutions per minute. That's what I'm talking about. Wikipedia, of course offers a much longer history.) I became an enthusiast on the spot, and we formed the Logan Gramophone Society, which meets on secret dates set to the lunar calendar, and involves scones, tea, and fezzes. Our university's music department has a veritable treasure trove of old records which supplies us with an inexhaustible supply of the quirky, the charming, and the incredible.
The earliest recordings were made before there were any amplifiers, let alone mixers or equalizers. Recording artists played into a horn, and some mechanism translated their sound waves into a wavy line scratched into wax. (We should all devote a moment to marveling at the fact that the sound of a singer accompanied by strings and tuba can all get squashed into a single wavy line.) That wavy line was then wrapped into a spiral and stamped upon many shellac disks, which were sold through record stores. Consumers would then buy the discs, take them home, place them upon their turntables, and place a needle at one end of the spiral, and send the disc into motion. Then the whole process would reverse itself: the wavy lines would vibrate the needle, and those vibrations would be sent out the horn for all to enjoy.
The point is that the sound travels from producer to consumer without ever disappearing into some electronic circuit to be changed or shaped. Jascha Heifetz plays his violin into a horn, those vibrations become scratches, those scratches become vibrations, and I hear Heifetz play. Everything is on the surface; nothing ever goes into a black box. I am one step away from direct, physical connection to Heifetz, as I would be if I handled his bow or tried on his hat. It is a form of aural time travel.
by Emrys Westacott
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is widely touted as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Western civilization. Yet few people other than academic philosophers read his works, and I imagine that only a minority of them have read in its entirety the Critique of Pure Reason, generally considered his magnum opus. Kantian scholarship flourishes, with specialized journals and Kant societies in several countries, but it is largely written by and for specialists interested in exploring subtleties and complexities in Kant's texts, unnoticed influences on his thought, and so on. Some of Kant's writing is notoriously difficult to penetrate, which is why we need scholars to interpret his texts for us, and also why, in two hundred years, he has never made it onto the New York Times best seller list. And some of the ideas that he considered central to his metaphysics–for instance, his views about space, time, substance, and causality–are widely held to have been superseded by modern physics.
So what is so great about Kant? How is his philosophy still relevant today? What makes his texts worth studying and his ideas worth pondering? These are questions that could occasion a big book. What follows is my brief two penn'th on Kant's contribution to modern ways of thinking. I am not suggesting that Kant was the first or the only thinker to put forward the ideas mentioned here, or that they exhaust what is valuable in his philosophy. My purpose is just to identify some of the central strains in his thought that remain remarkably pertinent to contemporary debates.
1. Kant recognized that in the wake of the scientific revolution, what we call "knowledge" needed to be reconceived. He held that we should restrict the concept of knowledge to scientific knowledge–that is, to claims that are, or could be, justified by scientific means.
2. He identified the hallmark of scientific knowledge as what can be verified by empirical observation (plus some philosophical claims about the framework within which such observations occur). Where this isn't possible, we don't have knowledge; we have, instead, either pseudo-science (e.g. astrology), or unrestrained speculation (e.g. religion).
3. He understood that both everyday life and scientific knowledge rests on, and is made orderly, by some very basic assumptions that aren't self-evident but can't be entirely justified by empirical observations. For instance, we assume that the physical world will conform to mathematical principles. Kant argues in the Critique of Pure Reason that our belief that every event has a cause is such an assumption; perhaps, also, our belief that effects follow necessarily from their causes; but many today reject his classification of such claims as "synthetic a priori." Regardless of whether one agrees with Kant's account of what these assumptions are, his justification of them is thoroughly modern since it is essentially pragmatic. They make science possible. More generally, they make the world knowable. Kant in fact argues that in their absence our experience from one moment to the next would not be the coherent and intelligible stream that it is.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Michael Hobbes in The New Republic:
It seemed like such a good idea at the time: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other. Every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel, water filled an elevated tank a few yards away, providing fresh, clean water anyone in the village could use all day.
PlayPump International, the NGO that came up with the idea and developed the technology, seemed to have thought of everything. To pay for maintenance, the elevated water tanks sold advertising, becoming billboards for companies seeking access to rural markets. If the ads didn’t sell, they would feature HIV/AIDS-prevention campaigns. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.
The donations gushed in. In 2006, the U.S. government and two major foundations pledged $16.4 million in a public ceremony emceed by Bill Clinton and Laura Bush. The technology was touted by the World Bank and made a cameo in America’s 2007 Water for the Poor Act. Jay-Z personally pledged $400,000. PlayPump set the goal of installing 4,000 pumps in Africa by 2010. “That would mean clean drinking water for some ten million people,” a “Frontline” reporter announced.
By 2007, less than two years after the grants came in, it was already clear these aspirations weren’t going to be met. A UNICEF report found pumps abandoned, broken, unmaintained. Of the more than 1,500 pumps that had been installed with the initial burst of grant money in Zambia, one-quarter already needed repair. The Guardian said the pumps were “reliant on child labour.”
Disgust is often used as a tool of persuasion. But are gut feelings ever a reliable guide in questions of right and wrong?
Carol Hay in Aeon:
Every spring a pro-life group – one whose campaigning methods are so shockingly offensive that I won’t publish their name here – sets up shop on my university’s campus quad. The group’s shtick involves displaying billboard-sized images of aborted foetuses juxtaposed with gory photos of atrocities such as mass graves and lynchings.
The group has been haunting me for years; when I was in grad school, their designated free-speech zone happened to be right outside my cubicle window. Most years, I took advantage of my location to plaster the window with pro-choice signs of my own. A few years ago, they visited the campus where I’m now an assistant professor, setting up their grisly billboards in a 20-foot circle right in the middle of campus. Several of my students, tickled at the prospect of witnessing their visibly pregnant, feminist ethics professor debate the morality of abortion, managed to convince me to try to talk to the protesters. It went about as well as you might expect.
What went considerably better was the response from the rest of the student body. After the initial shock wore off and they came to understand that, as a public university, we were obliged to respect the protesters’ rights to free speech, the students mounted a spirited counter-protest.
Note: For Nazli.