Lest the impression be given that the creative thought and work that I am praising is something rare, the possession of only a few, let it be noted that it exists in degrees and is, in one form or another, far from rare. What is rare is, I think, the proper appreciation of it. We tend to think of creative works as spectacular achievements, particularly in the arts, but in fact the human capacity to create something new is sometimes found in quite mundane things. Thus, for example, the establishment of a brilliant position in a game of chess is a perfect example of creativity, … . Things as common as gardening, woodworking and the like give scope to the originality of those who have the knack for them, and are probably the most constant source of life’s joys. … . My own favorite example of a creative work, and one whose value as a creation is rarely appreciated, is the raising of a beautiful family, something that is reserved for the relatively few who can, as a natural gift, do it well.
March 21, 2017
February 24, 2017
My poor failing blog. To add an insult to the injury of neglect, I’ve engaged in a bit of promiscuous blogging this month. It would be indecent not confess by unchaste escapades here.
Thanks to the editors at Rightly Considered, who asked me if I wanted to write a guest post for them. I wrote about whether it is rational to carry a gun. The numbers in the post could be tightened up, but the rough estimates, I think, sufficiently justify the philosophical point I tried to make. (Note: I understand that Rightly Considered is a bloga non grata among philosophers, so I hasten to add that I do not agree with other things written there.)
Thanks also to Kenny Pearce, who asked me to be a contributor to Prosblogion‘s Virtual Colloquium. I am looking forward to (potentially) receiving feedback on that post, which exposes the conceptual heart of my dissertation to the surgical minds of other philosophers. (Note: I understand that Prosblogion is not a bloga non grata among philosophers, so I hasten to add that I agree with everything that’s ever been written there.)
January 1, 2017
Behold, the list of mostly non-work related books I (slowly) traversed in 2016:
- Allison Hoover Bartlett, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (Riverhead Books, 2010).
- Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1987).
- Arthur Brooks, The Conservative Heart (Broadside Books, 2015).
- Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (Simon and Schuster, 2010).
- Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue (University of Michigan Press, 1960).
- David Horowitz, Hating Whitey: And Other Progressive Causes (Spence, 1999).
- Andrew Klavan, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ (Thomas Nelson, 2016).
- John Lott, The War on Guns (Regnery, 2016).
- Michael Lynch, True to Life: Why Truth Matters (MT, 2005).
- Mike Martin, Self-Deception and Morality (Kansas, 1986).
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin Books, 1985).
- Graham Priest, One: Being an Investigation into the Unity of Reality and of its Parts, including the Singular Object which is Nothingness (Oxford, 2014). Reviewed HERE.
- Nicholas Rescher, Philosophical Standardism: An Empirical Approach to Philosophical Methodology (Pittsburgh, 2000).
- Jeff Shaara, Civil War Battlefields (Ballantine, 2006).
- Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism? (Simon & Schuster, 1994).
- Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Race (Basic Books, 2013).
- Thomas Sowell, Wealth, Poverty, and Politics: An International Perspective (Basic Books, 2015).
- Benjamin Wiker, Ten Books that Screwed Up the World (Regnery, 2008).
- Benjamin Wiker, Ten Books Every Conservative Must Read (Regnery, 2010).
- Ransom Riggs, Tales of the Peculiar
- R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Although overall better than 2015’s showing, the uptick in politics probably offsets any gains in philosophy. Maybe that is a reflection of the intensity of the election year. I hope to resume more regular and rewarding reading habits in 2017, a year which will, God willing, see the completion of the ol’ dissertation and moving back to the Southeastern heartland.
I’ve been pretty bad at keeping my book resolutions of previous years. At the close of 2013 I resolved to read more books in 2014 than I did in 2013. Failed. At the close of 2014, I resolved to temper the bibliophilia driving me to acquire books much faster than I can read or even shelve them. Failed. At the close of 2015 I resolved to keep the flame of love for lady philosophy from burning out. I suppose that resolution was met, but cold winds are still blowing. So no resolution this year. Resolutions are for losers, anyway (of which I am proof).
November 15, 2016
The title of this post is the question my students asked me at the beginning of class the day after Donald Trump won the election. I thought about the question for a moment, decided I didn’t really have anything to say about that, and moved on. But I continued to think about the question over the weekend and shared a few of my thoughts with class yesterday. The following is roughly what I said.
My basic instinct was right: I didn’t have anything to say because, well, philosophers don’t have that much to add to the political discussion, at least as it takes place on the front lines. Academics generally, but philosophers especially, are pathologically inclined to think their opinions are worth astronomically more than they are, especially on matters about which they do not specialize. Their very livelihoods come from publishing their opinions on very specific things, which can easily create the impression in oneself and others that their opinions on things generally carry more weight. But they don’t. So be wary of, for example, the English (and, yes, philosophy) professor who waxes eloquent on politics in class. That being said, take the following with an extra grain of salt.
As a general rule, I believe instructors should aspire to teach in a fair and balanced manner, and conceal as honestly as they can their own personal beliefs on controversial topics. Students can be very impressionable, and a likable or charismatic professor can have an enormous influence on what students come to believe. Instructors, therefore, ought to take special care to respect their students’ epistemic autonomy in what they say and the way they teach. Many professors are so certain of their moral and intellectual superiority that they intentionally exploit their position of influence to manipulate students into believing what they do. Witness, for example, philosopher Richard Rorty [“Universality and Truth,” in Robert B. Brandom (ed.), Rorty and His Critics (Blackwell, 2000), pp. 21-22]:
I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities…try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own … The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire ‘American liberal establishment’ is engaged in a conspiracy. The parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students … When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. … You have to be educated in order to be a participant in our conversation … So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours … I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent domination of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents … I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.
Many professors agree with Rorty’s modus operandi in teaching, if not with the content of what he teaches, although I suspect they wouldn’t be as honest as Rorty in acknowledging their manipulation. So what, if anything, can students themselves do to respect their own epistemic autonomy and resist being manipulated, especially with respect to their political and religious beliefs?
I think it’s absolutely crucial for young people to try to put their finger on the contemporary zeitgeist: become aware of the popular moral, intellectual, and political theories of one’s day as popular moral, intellectual, and political theories of one’s day. Some degree of susceptibility to groupthink can be resisted simply by becoming aware of what one’s group thinks, as opposed what others think and have thought. Obviously, what is popular is not always wrong, but it ain’t always right, either, and we shouldn’t underestimate the power of peer pressure in a culture that is able to enforce conformity and punish dissent in unprecedented fashion with mass media.
The problem with this recommendation, however, is like the problem of how a fish can know it’s wet. How can we become aware of, and honestly assess, the moral and ideological trends of our day when our thinking is so much a product of them? But there is a solution to the fish problem: the fish can know it’s wet by jumping out of the water. So how do we, as metaphorical fish, jump out of the metaphorical water of our own culture?
Here is a twofold proposal. First, unplug. Radios, TVs, the Internet, video games, music, movies, and other forms of popular electronic media are 5% educational, 5% personally enriching (e.g., soul-building art, valuable social networking, etc.), and 90% entertainment-propaganda (one category) whose subliminal messages are the ectoplasm of the zeitgeist, the source of the stream you swim in. This point is forcefully made by authors like Alan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind and Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. So, jump out of the stream on occasion. How? By reading good books (idem), especially good old books or good books about good old books. This is the second fold of the proposal. Reading such books allows us, albeit temporarily and imperfectly, to swim in a stream different from our own, so that when we jump back into ours we bring something of someone else’s perspective with us. To that effect, I recommended these books:
- Plato, The Republic
- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
- Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
- Will Durant, The Lessons of History
- Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present
- Thomas Sowell, Wealth, Poverty, and Politics
- Morton White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution
- Alan Bloom (ed.), Confronting the Constitution
Afterward a student asked, “If you could recommend just one of these books, which would it be?” And another followed, “Are there Sparknotes on these?” I love my students. :-)
May 11, 2016
Here’s a simple argument for the conclusion that your gender is essential to you, your essence, haecceity, or identity.
(i) Take Kripke’s essentiality of origins thesis: your origin is essential to you. You could not have originated from a different set of parents. That a particular sperm and a particular egg united at a particular moment (i.e., conception) is essential to you. Had a different sperm or egg united at that moment, you would not have existed. (ii) You originated at conception. Your origin and conception are, in fact, the same event. (iii) Gender is determined at conception. The moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, gender is set. It might be protested at this point that the argument confuses biological “sex” with “gender.” But the arguer need not assume human persons are essentially biological organisms; only that their biological origin is essential to them, and that they have certain essential properties in virtue of that origin. But if human persons are possibly not biological organisms (e.g., they can exist disembodied, or at least with a non-biological body), then they possibly lack a biological sex. What would it mean to say you’re biologically male while lacking a biological body? So either the distinction between “sex” and “gender” is illegitimate, or what is essential to you in virtue of your biological origin is gender, not biological sex. It follows that (iv) gender is constitutive of your origin. Part of what made your origin/conception the very event it was, was what occurred in that event; what occurred in that event was the creation of a gendered zygote. (v) If x is constitutive of y, and y is essential to S, then x is essential to S. So, (vi) your gender is essential to you.
May 4, 2016
Once upon a time there was a man named Joseph Smith. Joe was a very charismatic man. But he was also a treasure-seeking, duplicitous, sexist, power-hungry, moderately intelligent, manipulative, swindling scumbag. For all his vices, Joe managed to convince many credulous Christians that he was not just a Christian, but a timely Christian prophet. He wasn’t, of course. He was, in reality, just a treasure-seeking, duplicitous, sexist, power-hungry, moderately intelligent, manipulative, swindling scumbag. Sadly, though, many believed in his message. So they gave him treasure, power, and license to change accepted standards of Christian morality. True Christians saw him for who and what he was, which forced him to start a new sect. Non-Christians also saw him for who and what he was, which reinforced their rejection of Christianity for what it wasn’t.
Today’s reflection was brought to you by Old Shenandoah’s Bootlegged. It is described as wonderfully aromatic and bite-free, with soft, nutty Burleys blended with good portion of silky black Cavendish and accented by the addition of some lemon Virginia.
April 11, 2016
Here is a pre-print of my review of Graham Preist’s most recent book, One: Being an investigation into the Unity of Reality and of its Parts, including the Singular Object which is Nothingness (Oxford, 2014), forthcoming in Philosophy in Review.
It was a fun and engaging book to read, though I disagreed with almost every assertion made in it. But that’s OK. Part of the pleasure of reading it was in appreciating the power and elegance of a view so radically different from my own. I aspire to be able to defend my views with as much ingenuity, clarity, wit, and verve as Priest does his.
March 27, 2016
Christianity, unlike most other religions, is a religion grounded in a particular historical event that either did or did not happen. That event—resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth—is susceptible to historical investigation just like any other. Attempts to place the resurrection beyond the reach of falsification by taking it out of the messy, gritty realm of concrete, objective, investigable fact and putting it into the “safer” realm of subjective, spiritual, internal experience is dishonest in the extreme.
If Jesus didn’t actually come back to life with a body that could be poked and prodded by skeptics or embraced and kissed by friends, I don’t give a damn what heart-warming lessons can be drawn from the story. But if he did, nothing else could have more profound existential ramifications. The following passage from Wright’s magisterial book on the resurrection is worth quoting at length:
The early Christians saw Jesus’ resurrection as the action of the creator god to reaffirm the essential goodness of creation and, in an initial and representative act of new creation, to establish a bridgehead within the present world of space, time and matter through which the whole new creation could now come to birth. Calling Jesus ‘son of god’ within this context of meaning, they constituted themselves by implication as a collection of rebel cells within Caesar’s empire, loyal to a different monarch, a different kyrios. Saying ‘Jesus has been raised from the dead’ proved to be self-involving in that it gained its meaning within this counter-imperial worldview. The Sadducees were right to regard the doctrine of resurrection, and especially its announcement in relation to Jesus, as political dynamite.
Once again we must not confuse ‘meaning’ in this sense with ‘referent’. Just as ‘Jesus has been raised from the dead’ does not refer to the fact that ‘my sins have been forgiven’, even though it means that within its wider world of implication, so that same sentence does not refer to the fact that the true god disapproves of brutal tyranny, even though it means that. Some recent books, eager to bring out the political implications of the resurrection, have allowed this political ‘meaning’ to take over entirely, and have supposed that this argument is strengthened by suggesting that nothing much happened on the third day after Jesus’ death. Get rid of the original referent, and (so it appears) you allow the implication to take its place. But this misses the point the early Christians were eager to make, the point that brought them quickly into confrontation with the authorities both Jewish and pagan. To imply that Jesus ‘went to heaven when he died’, or that he is now simply a spiritual presence, and to suppose that such ideas exhaust the referential meaning of ‘Jesus was raised from the dead’, is to miss the point, to cut the nerve of the social, cultural and political critique. Death is the ultimate weapon of the tyrant; resurrection does not make a covenant with death, it overthrows it. The resurrection, in the full Jewish and early Christian sense, is the ultimate affirmation that creation matters, that embodied human beings matter. That is why resurrection has always had an inescapable political meaning; that is why the Sadducees in the first century, and the Enlightenment in our own day, have opposed it so strongly. No tyrant is threatened by Jesus going to heaven, leaving his body in a tomb. No governments face the authentic Christian challenge when the church’s social preaching tries to base itself on Jesus’ teaching, detached from the central and energizing fact of his resurrection (or when, for that matter, the resurrection is affirmed simply as an example of a supernatural ‘happy ending’ which guarantees post-mortem bliss).
…The resurrection constitutes Jesus as the world’s true sovereign, the ‘son of god’ who claims absolute allegiance from everyone and everything within creation. He is the start of the creator’s new world: its pilot project, indeed its pilot.
That being said, as a Christian doing graduate work in philosophy, I often wonder what non-Christian philosophers would make of arguments for the resurrection, whether the historiographical treatments of Wright and Licona or the more philosophically rigorous formulations of Swinburne and the McGrews, especially in light of how the standard Humean objection to miracles has been shown to be demonstrably fallacious. Philosophers read and think about stuff all the time. It is their job, after all. Given the monumental significance of the resurrection, if true, don’t non-Christian philosophers owe it to themselves to read at least a few good books on the topic, and to devote some honest thought to how good of a case there is for it? Some have done that, to be sure. But they are few. Most non-Christian philosophers are, I imagine, blissfully unaware that serious arguments for the resurrection even exist. But I suppose their lot is understandable. They’re no doubt too busy tackling the really important questions, like whether the principle of substitutivity of identiticals holds when substituting codesignators within the scope of temporal and modal operators.
March 22, 2016
Whether in Europe, Asia, Africa or the Western Hemisphere, a common pattern among intellectuals has been to seek, or demand, equality of results without equality of causes—or on sheer presumptions of equality of causes. Nor have such demands been limited to intellectuals within the lagging groups, whether minorities or majorities. Outside intellectuals, including intellectuals in other countries, have often discussed statistical differences in incomes and other outcomes as “disparities,” and “inequities” that need to be “corrected,” as if they were discussing abstract people in an abstract world.
The corrections being urged are seldom corrections within the lagging groups, such as Hume urged upon his fellow Scots in the eighteenth century. Today, the prevailing tenets of multiculturalism declare all cultures equal, sealing members of lagging groups within a bubble of their current habits and practices, much as believers in multiculturalism have sealed themselves within a bubble of peer-consensus dogma.
There are certain possibilities that many among the intelligentsia cannot even acknowledge as possibilities, much less try to test empirically, which would be risking a whole vision of the world—and of themselves—on a roll of the dice. Chief among these is the possibility that the most fundamental disparity among people is in their disparities in wealth-generating capabilities, of which the disparities in income and wealth are results, rather than causes. Other disparities, whether in crime, violence and alcohol intake or other social pathology, may also have internal roots. But these possibilities as well are not allowed inside the sealed bubble of the prevailing vision.
One of the consequences of this vision is that blatant economic and other differences among groups, for which explanations due to factors internal to the lagging group are not allowed inside the sealed bubble of the multicultural vision, must be explained by external causes. If group A has higher incomes or higher other achievements than group B, then the vision of cosmic justice transforms A’s good fortune into B’s grievance—and not a grievance against fate, the gods, geography or the cosmos, but specifically a grievance against A. This formula has been applied around the world, whether turning Czechs against Germans, Malays against Chinese, Ugandans against Indians, Sinhalese against Tamils or innumerable other groups against those more successful than themselves.
The contribution of the intelligentsia to this process has often been to verbally conjure up a vision in which A has acquired wealth by taking it from B—the latter being referred to as “exploited,” “dispossessed,” or in some other verbal formulation that explains the economic disparity by a transfer of wealth from B to A. It does not matter if there is no speck of evidence that B was economically better off before A arrived on the scene. Nor does it matter how much evidence there may be that B became demonstrably worse off after A departed the scene, whether it was the Ugandan economy collapsing after the expulsions of Indians and Pakistanis in the 1970s, the desolation in the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia after the Germans were expelled in 1945, or the continuing urban desolation of many black ghettoes across the United States, decades after the riots of the 1960s drove out many of the white-owned businesses that were supposedly exploiting ghetto residents.
Not only is empirical evidence that A made B poorer seldom considered necessary, considerable evidence that A’s presence kept B from being even poorer is often ignored. In Third World countries whose poverty has often been attributed to “exploitation” by Western nations, it is not uncommon for those indigenous people most in contact with Westerners in port cities and other places to be visibly less poor than indigenous people out in the hinterlands remote from Western contacts or influence.
To think of some people as simply being higher achievers than others, for whatever reason, is a threat to today’s prevailing vision, for it implicitly places the onus on the lagging group to achieve more—and, perhaps more important, deprives the intelligentsia of their role of fighting on the side of the angels against the forces of evil. The very concept of achievement fades into the background, or disappears completely, in some of the verbal formulations of the intelligentsia, where those who turn out to be more successful ex post are depicted as having been “privileged” ex ante.
—Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Race (Basic Books, 2013), pp. 50-52.
January 21, 2016
“An increase of pride diminishes gratitude. So doth sensuality, or the increase of sensual appetites; which coming more and more under the power and impression of sensible objects, tends by degrees to make the mind insensible to any thing else. Those appetites take up the whole soul; and, through habit and custom, the water is all drawn out of other channels in which it naturally flows, and is carried as it were into one channel … Genuine virtue prevents that increase of the habits of pride and sensuality, which tend to diminish the exercises of the useful and necessary principles of nature. And a principle of general benevolence softens and sweetens the mind, makes it more susceptible of the proper influence of the gentler natural instincts, directs every one into its proper channel, determines the exercise to the proper manner and measure, and guides all to the best purposes.”
—Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue (University of Michigan Press, 1960), pp. 93, 97.