userpicBush, Obama: sport, language
21.01.09, 11:10 AM

Our new president has literary and athletic skills. Not only can he write and speak eloquently and grammatically (his inauguration speech was meticulously crafted); he is also a fluent mover on the basketball court, with good coordination and ball sense. His predecessor was notoriously clumsy around language; he spoke as if language were a disease from which he was trying to recover (I've often wondered how bad his spelling and grammar are). His athletic activities seem confined to jogging and mountain-biking, neither of which require much in the way of skill or talent. His father can play tennis reasonably and the son must have been exposed to the game as a youngster--yet you never hear of George W. on the court. I suspect his athletic preferences reflect a simple lack of (a) talent and (b) dedication. There is thus a striking difference of skill in the two presidents--in language and in athletics. I suspect this tells us a lot about both men--about their natural abilities, their capacity for hardwork and focus, their level of confidence, their treatment of others. Obama, as a ball player, had to learn to work with others; Bush just churned away on his own. Obama grasped and exploited the power of language; Bush seems to hate language, or at least not to be on its good side. Above all, I see in Obama all the virtues of carefully acquired skill--intellectual and athletic. In Bush I saw clumsiness and indolence.

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Film Reviews
userpicWho Rules America?
19.01.09, 11:06 AM

Most Americans have no trouble believing that God exists, but they are uncertain about whether an American ruling class exists. They seem to think the idea of a ruling class is restricted to European aristocracies of yore and assorted eastern potentates of today. In The American Ruling Class Lewis Lapham takes a wry trip across America, ostensibly to educate two fresh-faced graduates about the ways of power and privilege. Some of their interlocutors express puzzlement about the very idea of a ruling class in America, while others seize on the phrase with palpable disdain for anyone who has doubts about the concept. The result of these conversations is instructive and sobering; I was particularly struck by the sheer difficulty of living in America on a standard working wage—the kind a waiter might expect to earn. Clearly, some people earn too little, while others “earn” too much. Surely there can be no serious doubt that a minority of the population commands more power per capita than the majority: some people own disproportionately large amounts and have access to political power that is commensurate to their wealth. If that is what we mean by a ruling class, then there indubitably exists one in America.

American Ruling ClassBut the matter is a bit more complicated than the filmmakers allow. First, the American ruling class, unlike old aristocracies, is not hereditary: you can become a member of it without being born into it. As many commentators in this film observe, it is possible to join the class from outside of it: an education at a prestigious university, along with some charm and ability, can earn you entry to, say, a Wall Street brokerage. This is very different from the British ruling class, say, which cannot invite you to join it (not that it would want to). So there is an element of meritocracy in the American version, which

mitigates the charge of injustice that is rightly brought against hereditary wealth and power (though having rich parents in America is definitely a step in the right direction).

Secondly, and the point is entirely ignored in this otherwise excellent film, the wealth and power of the minority in America depends very largely on pleasing the relatively underprivileged majority. If you are the CEO of a corporation that makes stuff, you have to make stuff that the majority wants to buy—even if that majority is poorly off. You can’t afford not to care what the majority feels like buying and doing. This holds for all consumer goods and services except the luxury end of the market. The demands of the multitude therefore set the parameters for the prosperity of the elite. And the multitude also determines the kind of general culture that prevails in America—food, entertainment, etc. The masses may not have much power on a per capita basis, but they certainly have enormous power as a totality, through sheer force of numbers. Accordingly, the ruling class of America might with some justice be identified as the relatively poor majority, since they determine who among the oligarchs succeeds in the marketplace (Bill Gates couldn’t have done it unless people wanted what he had to sell). In other words, the working class is really the ruling class, while the upper class is pathetically subservient to their interests and preferences.

My point is not that working people are better off than people who earn a lot more; on a per capita basis there lives are nowhere near as good. But the sheer number of them, combined with a democratic form of capitalism, gives them more power as a class than any other class. True, they have no lobbyists in Washington pushing their agenda, but their combined purchasing power is what ultimately makes the rich richer. The preferences of the majority have decisive power in determining the content of the culture. (This is why the business class is so intent on manipulating the majority: they know they depend on the majority to maintain their privilege.)

The right thing to say, absent a political ax to grind, is that America has many ruling classes, depending upon what we mean by the term and what the power in question is the power to do. In some respects, even the humble teacher or academic constitutes the ruling class, since she has the power to determine how people shall be educated. The people who run the media also rule the dissemination of information, so have more power in that respect than anyone else. And so on. The simple binary opposition of The American Ruling Class fails to capture this complexity—however right it is about the unjust concentration of wealth in the hands of some at the expense of others. The film contrives to give the impression that what is wrong with America is that too much power lies in the hands of a privileged minority; but from another perspective the problem is rather that culture and policy are too tied to what the majority likes and values (food, television, music, etc). I’d say that the problem is the symbiosis between these two groups: the elite is beholden to the masses to maintain its power, because of the omnipresence of the market, while the masses are deprived of a decent share of the wealth created by their work and market behavior. The ruling class of America is really the elite-proletarian complex—the interdependence of business oligarchs and the consuming masses.

4 comments 4 comments ( 3807 views )

userpicSanitation (philosophy of)
07.01.09, 11:15 AM

I've just finished reading Rose George's The Big Necessity, about toilets and human waste (euphemism alert!)--as part of my interest in the emotion of disgust. I'd strongly recommend Aurel Kolnai's monograph "On Disgust" as a philosophical treatment of the subject; it contains some excellent phenomenological work with some important conceptual distinctions (far better than most of what passes for work on the emotions in current analytical philosophy). But Ms. George brings out the medical/cultural/political aspects of the problem of our disgusting bodies--what to do with and about all the shit we produce. The effects on health of inadequate toilets in the "turd world" (Naipaul) are catastrophic, but the sheer unpleasantness of living near human excrement is also appalling. Yet most people don't want to have to think about it, because of the distastefulness of the topic: no celebrity wants to hitch herself to the shit bandwagon. Our general repression of matters disgusting prevents us facing up to a serious health problem. If we are the "god that shits" (E. Becker), then we are in full flight from ourselves. I even wonder whether religion itself and the whole idea of a god is produced by our self-disgust.

5 comments 5 comments ( 1051 views )

06.12.08, 11:22 AM

"Philosophy is difficult and the difficult thing is to make it look easy; fiction is easy and the easy thing is to make it look difficult (the difficult thing is to make it interesting without making it difficult)." Discuss.

5 comments 5 comments ( 1528 views )

06.12.08, 11:19 AM

Why is death bad? Not for the same reason life is--that it contains bad experiences; it contains no experiences. The badness of death consists in the removal of all intentionality, not its suffusion by bad intentional objects. This has the implication that a consciousness without intentionality, as may be supposed for the early fetus, has no value. It isn't sentience as such that confers value but sentience combined with (determinate) intentionality. A kind of super-Alzheimer's that subtracted all intentionality from the subject would be tantamount to death, so far as value in concerned. On reflection, that sounds right.

69 comments 69 comments ( 3691 views )

userpicBlack and White
01.11.08, 11:22 AM

Is anyone else as irritated as I am by the constant description of Barack Obama as "black"? He has a white mother and a black father, which by my calculations makes him half white and half black. So it's just as true to describe him a white man as a black man. I can't help sensing a racist presupposition: just to be a bit black is already to be demoted, as if white purity has been somehow tainted. Of course, it's a good thing that a partially black man can be within a hair of achieving the White House, and it's worth pointing this out in descriptions of him; but in a post-racist society it would be misleading to describe him simply as "black". I really don't see him as one or the other, just as a combination--preciselly as white as he is black. So let's look forward to the next president of the USA as a "blite" man or a "whack" man.

5 comments 5 comments ( 1225 views )

Film Reviews
userpicDon’t be Religulous
20.10.08, 11:24 AM

I went to see Bill Maher’s documentary last night, on a balmy Miami night. Afterwards the rains came down in Biblical proportions, thus announcing God’s displeasure at the film and my attendance (I thwarted His wrath under a convenient restaurant umbrella). It’s an enjoyable and instructive film, especially if you enjoy groaning at people’s amazing credulity and nastiness, not the mention the silly outfits. What the film conveys better than any book is the sheer nuttiness of it all: the weird fantastical beliefs, the mental contortions, the verbal slipperiness, the flickering wild eyes. Each religion seems determined to outdo the others for sheer bizarreness—the less credible the better. The Mormon religion took the grand prize for me, with God relaxing on his nearby planet and Missouri the site of the Second Coming. But there was plenty to root for in the realms of the Higher Charlatanry, e.g. the portly Hispanic guy who fancies he is Jesus Christ (and thousands agree with him). My question afterwards was who was the most repulsive of the religious fanatics on display: Christians, Moslems and orthodox Jews had their strong contenders. This was equal-opportunity religion-bashing; except that Maher didn’t do much bashing, leaving that to the proponents of the various sects themselves. What a gallery of pious rogues! A book almost inevitably takes its subject seriously, but a film like this can simply let the camera record the gaudy tapestry of human delusion and manipulation. What they all had in common was that when testing questions were raised so were their hackles--and the whiff of violence was suddenly in the air. We knew all this before, of course, but seeing and hearing so much of it brought the whole terrible farce home.

I also learned something interesting: the remarkable parallels between the lives of Horus the mythical Egyptian falcon-god and our very own Jesus Christ—virgin birth, desert test, crucifixion, water-walking, dead-raising, light-giving, resurrected, three wise men, the whole shebang. I just looked this up on the internet and found a long list of strikingly exact parallels (I suggest you do the same). But when you think about it, this isn’t all that surprising: the gospels were penned long after Jesus’ death and the writers had to get their narrative from somewhere, especially for the early bits about his birth, childhood and so on—before he’d made his mark as a 30 year old. So they just copied the old story of Horus, evidently—which makes you wonder how much of the story of Jesus’ life in the Bible is really true. Perhaps hardly anything; maybe nothing. I used to think it must have some basis in historical fact, but the Horus-Jesus coincidence rather undermines that assumption.

My only serious objection to Maher is his insistence that we just don’t know the answers to the Big Questions, such as whether a god exists or where we go when we die. This is far too concessive. We certainly do know that Santa Klaus does not exist, or goblins, or three-legged giants who live in the fridge; it would be daft to be “agnostic” about such questions—and even dafter to remain “open-minded” about them. And we have every reason to believe that death is the end of the self, since we know that the mind depends on the brain. If you get brain damage a part of your mind goes out of existence; it would be absurd to think that it slides into an immortal limbo, waiting for the rest of your mind to join it when your brain goes totally kaput. Saying that such questions do not admit of rational answers simply invites the kind of superstitious nonsense Maher rightly ridicules. We indeed don’t know everything, but some things we know quite well—and the complete falsity of religious doctrine is one of them.

41 comments 41 comments ( 2807 views )

04.10.08, 11:24 AM

I'm thinking seriously about play and games in preparation for my forthcoming seminar on sports and philosophy (which will include actual physical activity). I've just read three books related to this. First is Mark Rowlands' new book The Philosopher and the Wolf, a stunningly good narrative about the author's relationship with his "pet" wolf. Among many wonderful and poignant moments, the book talks about the wolf's style of play and its style of life. This reinforced my view that play connects us with our animal heritage, which is a good (not a bad!) thing. Then there is Johan Huizinga's old (1938) Homo Ludens, a learned anthropological treatise on the role of play in shaping civilisation, in which game-playing comes to seem the dominant feature of human life. Finally, Bernard Suits' The Grasshopper, a minor masterpiece, strangely neglected by mainstream philosophy, in which the author defines the notion of a game with great insight and sophistication--the main point being that a game always proceeds by erecting obstacles to achieving its goal, instead of adopting the most direct means possible. This book also puts play at the centre of human (and animal) life, declaring games the highest form of human activity. All in all, we need to get serious about our game-playing and stop thinking it's peripheral or somehow inferior to "work". My own recent book, Sport, argues much the same, but I'm glad to have found three such ringing ensdorsements of this ludic point of view.

3 comments 3 comments ( 518 views )

05.09.08, 11:25 AM

People don't just believe that there exists a god; they also believe that there is only one. Disbelievers understandably focus on the existence claim, but the uniqueness claim can also be subjected to critical scrutiny. Why are believers so convinced there is only one God? What reason is there to make this assumption? Polytheism was the common opinion for much of human history--what with all the conflicting forces that seem to exist in the world. Now uniqueness is the dogma, with little or no supporting argument. Creationism certainly doesn't require monotheism. In fact, of course, the uniqueness dogma is traditionally somewhat wavering, because of the doctrine of the trinity and the angels and whatnot--various godlike entities distinct from the Head Honcho. I really don't know why theists cleave to the one-god hypothesis, unless to rule out rival gods from alien peoples. Is it just psychologically more comfortable? Is it because you only have one dad? And what are the identity conditions for gods anyway? When do you have one or many? How are gods to be individuated?

52 comments 52 comments ( 1575 views )

userpicShock! Horror! Criteria!
30.08.08, 11:26 AM

The writers and editors at the New York Times evidently need to feel a lot more linguistic insecurity than they do. On the editorial page of today's paper (August 30th) I was appalled to read the following, in a discussion of McCain's choice of Palin as his VP: "That really is the only criteria for judging a candidate for vice president." Don't they know that "criteria" is the plural and "criterion" the singular? It should (of course) be "that...criterion"; it can only be "those...criteria". You hear the mistake in conversation fairly often--but on the editorial page of the NY Times! Deplorable. Pathetic. Contemptible. And obviously it's not just one person who doesn't get it; a lot of people must have let that pass. Some serious knuckle-rapping needs to be done there--or firing. And while I'm on the subject, people have to stop saying "phenomena" when they mean "phenomenon"--using the plural when they mean the singular. But I bet there won't even be any embarrassment in the editorial offices of the Times over this "criteria" fuck-up--as if only the most pedantic of pedants would even notice it. I threw the paper across the room when I read it.

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userpicLinguistic Fears
29.08.08, 11:27 AM

Speech carries various anxieties. Fear of asserting what is false should count as the most serious--inadvertent falsehood, as opposed to plain lying. The philosophical skeptic taps into this fear, making assertion seem perilous. In the 20th century fear of meaningless utterance became acute: it was all too easy to confuse the grammatical with the meaningful and end up spouting nonsense (the positivists tapped into this fear). This is more disturbing than the skeptical insinuation, because while truth is not transparent we feel that meaningfulness should be. Another linguistic fear, though, is the fear of cliche, of saying the hackneyed and over-used. I've always had a dread of this form of linguistic calamity and will go to almost any verbal lengths to avoid cliche--and yet the fear of it still dogs me. How can anyone still permit themselves to utter the phrases "emotional roller-coaster", "voracious reader", "like a deer caught in the headlights", etc? I wouldn't be caught dead with that stuff coming out of my mouth. What other linguistic fears are there? It would be interesting to compile a list and then impose a taxonomy. Speech is always an arena of anxiety, is it not?

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07.08.08, 11:28 AM

The other day I was on the tennis court alone, practicing my serve. From nowhere I heard a sudden loud noise, like an explosive. I couldn't make out the source but then I noticed a flattened can on the other side of the court, about fifteen feet way. I went over to investigate and found a squashed can of corn beef hash, full, heavy. It had evidently been dropped from above the court, at least twenty floors up (the building has 44 floors and faces the tennis court). The act of dropping it had clearly been intentional and the purpose was presumably to scare me. If it had hit me on the head, it would certainly have killed me, such was the power of the impact. Reflecting on the incident later, it occurred to me that this was a minor act of terrorism: the purpose was to infuse an ordinary, peaceful activity--playing tennis--with fear and anxiety. And it worked: since that day I am always looking up and the calm of my tennis has been replaced with a kind of dread. Terrorists have made even the quotidian and tranquil into a zone of fear. Boy, would I like catch the person who did it. There is something nauseatingly sinister about the terrorist intention: to remove peace of mind.

30.07.08, 11:29 AM

How well understood is motion, really? Physics is supposed to be the science that predicts and explains all motions of matter; it describes the laws that govern the forces that move things. But there are some big gaps. The motions of particles are notoriously unpredictable and inexplicable at the quantum level, but at the cosmic level we have the problem of explaining galaxy acceleration--the universe is expanding more slowly than the calculated amount of matter in it would make us expect, given the accepted rules of gravity. Physicists have taken to speaking of "dark matter" a what accounts for the extra pull, but there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a thing--and isn't the idea of intrinsically invisible matter an oxymoron? It's just sheer handwaving. So we don't know why the cosmos is movingas it is. Do we know why animal bodies move as they do? Doesn't the mind play a role in "determining" these movements? But physics has nothing to say about the forces that govern the mind and its capacity to induce motion. I sometimes wonder if any motion has really been explained.

21 comments 21 comments ( 691 views )

30.06.08, 11:30 AM

I recall reading somewhere that Keynes criticized Russell for saying that the problem with the world is that people are irrational and that the solution is that they should become rational. It seems a fair comment on Russell--but why is it a criticism? Because Russell's observation is a datum not an explanation: we want to know why people are irrational and how to improve their rationality. It's obvious what the problem is and also what the solution would be--but we need to know what causes irrationality and what we can do to fix it. Freud had a kind of theory of this but nowadays it looks pretty wacky. There seems to be a big theoretical gap here, urgently needing to be filled. (Of course, we won't recognize it if we start doubting that rationality is a robust matter.) I don't have a theory myself--human irrationality can seem the oddest and least adaptive trait of the species--but I do think we need to work on it. Why do people go around believing silly things and acting idiotically?

64 comments 64 comments ( 1261 views )

userpicOld Dears
17.06.08, 11:31 AM

The New York Times (as well as AOL) today ran a picture of a lesbian couple getting married in California: Del Martin, 87, Phyllis Lyon, 84. They are holding hands and looking into each other's eyes, lined and grey and not long for this world; they have been together for 50 years. Doesn't it make you feel embarrassed that discrimination and prejudice have prevented them by law from getting married all these years? Doesn't it seem just utterly ridiculous? All this stuff about marriage being between a man and a woman: it's just complete whooey. I really wonder what all those anti-gay-marriage twits out there think and feel when they see a picture like that. Do they feel their own marriages under threat because these two old ladies are finally able to tie the knot? I think we owe them an apology myself.

4 comments 4 comments ( 477 views )

Despite my many misgivings about our prized political system, it did manage to elect Barack Obama to be the Democratic nominee. I'm pleasantly surpised at my fellow man. It's not just his color, but also his calm, measured style, and obvious moral quality. But his color is, of course, highly significant. I can hardly think of a better thing for this country, and the world, than that he should be elected president. Political and moral progress is possible. Many blacks reported tears in their eyes when the announcement of his nomination was made; mine were damp too. This is a Big One. There's nothing quite so gratifying as seeing a horrible prejudice smashed to pieces.

userpicRelativism and Democracy
31.05.08, 11:33 AM

I am struck by this passage from Tocqueville: "I have previously stated that the principle of the sovereignty of the people hovers over the whole political system of the Anglo-Americans. Every page of this book will reflect certain fresh instances of this doctrine. In nations were it exists, every individual takes an equal share in sovereign power and participates equally in the government of the state. Thus he is considered as enlightened, virtuous, strong as any of his fellow men." Toqueville's point is that democracy presupposes that each person is as competent and virtuous as any other. But of course this is false: people differ widely in intelligence and virtue. Note that he says "considered" not "really". So democracy rests on a lie. How, then, to defend democracy? Well, if truth, reason, virtue, etc are not objective qualities that people exemplify to varying degrees, but are rather relative to each person, we have a way out: everyone is as smart and good as anyone else to himself. Then democracy rests on no lie, since everyone really is cognitively and morally equal. Relativism steps in to save democracy from its noble lie. Thus relativism finds a foothold. But relativism is rubbish; so where does that leave democracy?

userpicThe Serve
31.05.08, 11:32 AM

I watch how tennis players serve with great concentration. They all do it pretty much in the same way. And this way is quite different from the way amateur players serve, even quite decent amateur players. Claudio taught me the finer points of serving a few months ago (now, alas, he is back in Germany). High toss, long reach, bring the feet together, use a throwing action, backhand grip, snap the wrist down, plenty of side and top spin. It was incredibly awkward for me at first (backhand grip?!), but I took to practicing it almost every day for several months--not just on the court with a hopper of balls but also in my living room (no ball, just air). Gradually, the pieces came together, with some striking breakthroughs. Now what seemed alien feels natural. I can't serve any other way. It feels good to hit it just the way the pros do. There's a moral here--but I think it's too obvious for me to want to spell it out. Main point is: instead of fearing to serve, now I love to serve. Indeed, I can't wait to get down to the court and hit some serves.

userpicEnemies of thought
14.05.08, 11:34 AM

My son Bruno told me yesterday that he'd just been watching a video of me on Youtube. Eventually it became clear what this video was of: a discussion I participated in a few years ago at the Philoctetes Centre in New York about evolution, consciousness, and the meaning of it all. I hadn't even remembered that it was being filmed, but it's a mark of our digital times that it has now shown up on the internet to be accessed by my son 3000 miles away. But that's not the point I'm most interested in making here; because Bruno observed that the scientists present were generally disagreeable and closed-minded (he actually used a much stronger word to describe them). And he's a scientist himself--a doctor (ENT). This prompted me to ponder who is more deplorable among us: the superstitious zealots who limit their knowledge to what the Bible tells them or the scientists who are unable or unwilling to take any question seriously which has no scientific answer--which includes most of the questions I as a philosopher spend my time on. Specifically, several of those present hated my bringing up the point that we have no good scientific theory of how consciousness evolved in the first place (or how it arises in the brain of every human being at some point or another--and not just human brains). Why are people so incapable of stepping outside the narrow world-view of their specific range of expertise--either the Bible or their particular scientific discipline? Is it fear, narcissism, laziness, bloody-mindedness?

userpicGod disproved (yet again)
28.04.08, 11:35 AM

Just when you think that, just conceivably, you might be overdoing the anti-religious diatribes, you read something like the article I came across last Saturday in the New York Times, about a chap called Specialist Jeremy Hall who was systematically persecuted by his army superiors and fellow soldiers for his atheist views. Particularly odious was the pressure to pray with others when he declared his lack of belief (not to mention the physical threats he endured). Such, apparently, is the military mind (excuse the oxymoron). We know they are a conformist lot, but I had no idea that religious conformity is rigorously enforced, though not officially. Anyway, it made me think of yet another reason to deny God's existence: surely if he did exist he'd come forward to denounce the actions performed in his name. I would, wouldn't you? At least he'd send some sort of emissary, if not his son then at least some high-ranking celestial colleague or other--the angel Gabriel doesn't seem to have been up to much for a while, lolling away up there. Send someone important to earth, put people straight about right and wrong, about what God really wants from us. But oh no, God just lets it all happen--even atrocities on a vast scale. A few words from him, convincingly stated, and we would know what's what, but apparently he just can't be bothered. More likely, the lack of divine corrective indicates a lack of divine existence. Specialist Hall, I'm with you.

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