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Ruled or Represented?

It’s Election Day in the United States. It’s a national civics lesson in which we celebrate democracy and the role of the people in governing themselves. In the United States, this civics lesson describes our form of government as a representative democracy. People vote for representatives. The person who gets the majority wins and is supposed to represent the interests of the voters. This is the form in which Americans “share in the rule,” the phrase Aristotle uses to describe what citizens do in political life to distinguish political life form master rule where the ruled do not participate in the rule but are entirely subject to rule. Both the sharing in the rule and the ruling for the sake of the ruled are markers, Aristotle tells us, of political rule in contrast to master rule. 

I remember debating in high school social studies whether elected representatives were supposed to act in accordance with the wishes of the people who elected them or if they were supposed to make their best judgment about what would be right having been elected on the supposition that they were not so much the holder of every position of those who voted for them but rather considered the best person at making the right judgments. Elected officials have even explained votes by saying they had to do what their constituents wanted even if they disagreed. This debate still seems within the domain of different perspectives of representative democracy.

A friend posted something on Facebook about how our rulers were deciding among themselves and I was struck by how very true that was. In a more emphatic sense than has been the case before, it seems that we are no longer appointing representatives, we are being ruled.

Some people might say it has long been that way, and they are not wrong. The American system has long tried to keep the people at some remove from the real decisions. Consider the Senate’s composition of two senators from each state no matter how small. This calculus led to our situation today in which 51 Republican Senators represent 143 million people while 49 Democratic Senators represent 182 million people. Gerrymandering is so severe that there is some fear that the Democrats will win a majority of votes for House seats while losing the House. We never did really support the One Person, One Vote principle. 

But that’s not the only reason that we are ruled rather than represented. Public choice theory is the idea that elected officials themselves could be considered and studied as economic actors, as having their own interests that drive their actions. While there is a lot of debate about public choice theory this definition is uncontroversial. In the summary of it at the beginning of this article in Forbes, the author cites the theory itself as if it is conventional wisdom and so clearly unrelated to say, promoting segregation. But I hold public choice theory at least in part responsible for our situation of being ruled. Public choice theory appeared to study a phenomenon that it was in fact producing by suggesting that elected officials needed to be self-interested rather than concerned with good representation. Coupled with the power of big money in electoral politics, elected officials became motivated to be invested in holding on to their seats and thus to vote the way the money was rather than in response to people. They had to associate with the people who give them money and became invested in the moneyed interests. 

I think one element in this is the way that elected officials–Democrats as much as anyone–act out of fear rather than out of courage and thoughtful commitment to what would serve the citizenry. They see midterm elections as occasions in which they have to pick up a tiny slice of voters who might swing their votes instead of seeing the opportunity in the wide swath of people who never vote because they know the rulers rule for themselves. They develop platforms that appeal to the middle, people stay home because they haven’t motivated anyone to vote, and then they blame the nonvoters, when they could be speaking to the concerns of the people who never vote.

Public choice theory led politicians themselves to stop thinking in terms of what was good for their constituents and literally encouraged them to think in terms of their own self-interests. They became rulers instead of representatives. They became invested in not sharing the rule, in not taking turns. 

If we want representatives, we need to eliminate the electoral college and change the composition algorithm of the Senate, both anti-democratic mechanisms to preserve the power of the few. But we also need to change the way that politicians think about their position away from public choice theory and toward civil service. For this shift to happen, they need to be disincentivized to think in terms of their own self-interest apart from the interests of those they rule. Economists create ideal systems and then study the world as if it fits in that system and try to explain it accordingly, all the while that system produces the incentives it needs for it to really work that way so that their studies would be accurate. Public choice theory is no different. 

Teaching Aristotle’s Metaphysics as a Five-Act Shakespearian Play

Ryan Johnson contacted me after my posts (here and here) on teaching Aristotle through active teaching exercises to tell me about his own active Aristotle classroom. I think you will share my enthusiasm for his creative approach. This is his account of how he teaches Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

For me, metaphysics is a practice. While theoretical, it is still something you do. If a qualifier is helpful, let’s call it lived metaphysics. I learned this from reading ancient metaphysics, especially Aristotle’s τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά. This sense of metaphysics as a lived practice inspired how I teach Elon  University’s Ancient Philosophy class. The constant theme of our class is: metaphysics is not a rarified, merely theoretical discipline, but is an activity, a practice. Metaphysics is something you really do. The question was how to turn this into a class.

Here are the four main ways I teacher ancient metaphysics as a practice. First, I turned Aristotle’s Metaphysics into a five-act Shakespeare-inspired play and used that to structure the course. Second, I turned Act I, which focuses on the moments in pre-Socratic philosophy that Aristotle discusses in Book I, into a series of experiential learning exercises. I developed these with the always creative and inspiring Rob Leib of Florida Atlantic University. Third, the students’ semester-long writing assignment was to write their own metaphysical treatises, as well as critique each other’s treatises and then re-write their own in response to their peers’ critiques. Fourth, students performed what I call metaphysical ekphrases. Read more

Comments for SPEP Panel on Online Harassment

These are the remarks I’ll be given at the SPEP Advocacy Committee’s panel on Online Harassment at the SPEP Meeting at Penn State on October 19, 2018.

I was asked to speak on this panel in light of my experience as a series editor at the APA blog. I edit the Women in Philosophy series on the blog. As a series editor and as someone who has been a woman in philosophy on the internet for many years, I’ve spent some time thinking about comment moderation, diverse and inclusive posting, and dealing with trolls. For the record, the views I am sharing here are my own and not mine in any official capacity as part of the APA.

The first point I want to make is that I think blogs meant to serve a community require the same careful and nuanced thinking about what parameters and practices foster inclusive community as the scholarship that philosophers engage in about community requires. I’ve been thinking deeply about inclusive community for almost two decades. I have two points of departure. From Aristotle, I think we learn that community following a certain notion of nature has to remain concerned with what its purpose is and whether it is achieving its end in order to actually achieve it. This purpose is evidenced by who it includes. Aristotle counsels communities to be more just and more stable by being more inclusive. Who a community includes tells you what goals the community pursues and what it thinks is just. Who posts on a blog, whose other posts are linked to, who posts regularly in comment sections, these things tell you what goals the community pursues and what it thinks is just. Read more

Report on the GLCA Ancient Philosophy Research and Teaching Collaborative Initiative

Crossposted from the Great Lakes College Association Center for Teaching and Learning blog.

The GLCA Ancient Philosophy Research and Teaching Collaborative Initiative began in 2014 when several of us in the GLCA who work in ancient philosophy began a series of conversations about how we might take advantage of the resources we share across the consortium for teaching and writing in ancient philosophy. In particular, we thought that ancient philosophy was a good site from which to think about pedagogy since these ancient thinkers were interested in questions of what it means to learn and to teach. These thinkers take seriously the problem that the person who does not know tends to be unaware of what she does not know, so the learning process becomes a paradox: how does a person enter a learning process if she does not realize that she needs to learn? Realizing one needs to learn at some level involves already knowing that which one needs to learn because to recognize this point suggests you know the knowledge you lack is missing. How can you identify it as missing if you do not know it? If you know that you miss it and therefore in some sense know it, then you don’t need to learn it because you know it. Some in-between space is required which allows the movement from not knowing to recognizing ignorance and fostering a desire to know.

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In My Feelings: Why it is Affectively Hard to Acknowledge One’s Own Oppression

The last several weeks have been difficult for many women. We saw a Senate accept weak lies from a self-entitled man. We saw many many people including for many of us, people we know, excuse accusations from a very credible witness because they didn’t reach the level of beyond reasonable doubt even though this is a job interview rather than a court of law, and even though people of color are robbed of the presumption of innocence when they are shot down by police. We saw a sitting U.S. President mock a woman for having honest memory lapses in her account of a traumatic attempted sexual assault. We saw, as Martha Nussbaum noted, white men and their supporters being outraged at being called to account for their bad behavior. Despite all the reasons that this nominee should have been disqualified, we saw a partisan push to confirm him as the next justice on the Supreme Court.

I broke down crying twice on Friday when I realized this confirmation was happening. I cried because this confirmation sends the signal that elected officials in the U.S. government and many of their supporters do not care about the trauma women suffer from sexual assault. They think it is the nature of boys. They think it is not that big of a deal. They think women are weak for complaining. They are mad that women have been strong by speaking up. They think if sexual assault could derail a nomination then no man could be nominated. They think that would be a bad thing.

It was a long time since I cried in the face of these realities. I’ve been thinking about why I don’t walk around emotionally distraught more often. It would be impossible to live if one let oneself feel how bad the oppression is all the time. In order to protect ourselves, in order to survive, people who experience not only oppression but the reality that their oppression does not matter, that it is not a concern to others, have to find ways to low-key ignore the oppression. Personally, I have to ignore the many many times men: explain things to me rather than recognize my expertise, assign my ideas to a man, try to shut me down and condescend to me in professional settings, make me feel like I am whining and complaining when I raise questions about diversity and inclusion, assign to me exaggerated claims about gender-related inequality in order to dismiss them. Together, we have to ignore the ways the Senate just conspired to silence women and make us feel like we are exaggerating our concerns.

In order to protect ourselves, we have to ignore how really egregious it all is. From ignoring it in order to protect ourselves, it is a short road to start to think, for our own sanity, that it isn’t really that bad. If it were that bad, we couldn’t possibly deal with it. Since we don’t want to think of ourselves as victims all the time, since we don’t want to suggest that we aren’t strong enough to deal with things, and since we don’t want to acknowledge that yes this state of things continues to do real harm to us, we live and act as if it really isn’t that big a deal. We can still function. We are strong. We have not been undone by all the injustice. If this is the case, we wonder, perhaps it is not that bad. It can’t be that bad right? If it were, how could we go on?

I think this response is a kind of self-care. But I’m concerned that this response approaches a place where it becomes acceptance for this behavior, allowance of it. I wonder even if the inability to deal with what it would have to mean for oneself and how really wronged one has been is what drives all these white women to support men like Kavanaugh. I think they are wrong. But I can see how that position is a short road from here. I want to say to all those women, you can still be strong and capable and they can still have done and continue to do great harm to you and to other women. Acknowledging the wrong does not lessen us as women.

But acknowledging the wrong can make it hurt more. I don’t always have the strength for that. But I do have comrades-in-arms who can get mad for me when I just have to ignore the wrong. I am happy to be mad for my friends. I think an intersectional feminism involves feeling that hurt for others beyond our immediate place. Share the wrath. Stand up, fight back.

Buying a House: The Home Improvement Project That Should Not Have Been

I think it was last March now that I looked at the bricks on the street-facing front of the porch and thought, that paint is practically coming off of the bricks on its own-I bet I could scrape it down to bare brick! Jeff was away so no one was here to talk me down. I found a scraper and got to work. Forty hours and several months later, the first layer of paint was off, only to discover an unscrapable layer underneath as well as a wall in need of a serious pointing job. I should have left it alone.

It turns out that the bottom layer can be taken off with a serious power-washing effort and some potent chemicals, but this approach destroys the surface of the brick. That might not matter so much in an internal brick wall, but external brick walls need that surface to protect them from moisture and wind. Read more

Aristotle in the Active Classroom: Group Activity 2

I’m on a roll folks. After I did the last group activity, I was inspired to do another, and I think this one was even more successful in getting students to think about Aristotle’s Metaphysics. For this game, I distributed envelopes to every group. In the envelopes were two sets of flashcards that I had made. One set was the same in every envelope. It included all of the four causes, the ways of being, and the candidates for substance. In the other set were instances of one of these.

Students had to figure out to which of the first set the second set belonged. Some of the sets of instances could belong to more than one category, for example, the genus set, which included animal, plant and planet, could also be considered universals. One set that was particularly hard for students was that of substance, in which I included various “thises” – Dr. Trott, the tree on the mall, their pet dog Spot. Students had to report out to the whole class to which of the first set their instances belonged and they had to explain why. Some students struggled, but the class was asked to help them figure out the right answer.

Even more than the first exercise, this one got students invested in understanding the material, drawing distinctions and thinking about how Aristotle offers them a vocabulary to explain the world. It also helped them see what wasn’t clear to them in the process of having to apply their learning to concrete examples. And it gave them an opportunity to explain to one another in a more informal setting and to raise questions to one another in a low stakes environment.

Aristotle in the Active Classroom: Group Activity Success

I am a little more than one week in to teaching my ancient survey. This is my second time starting with Aristotle’s Metaphysics. I know that sounds wild, but I think Aristotle sets up principles that make it easier for students to see what the Pre-Socratics and Hesiod are doing, and he gives us a lot of vocabulary for thinking about what counts as knowledge. My theme for the course as a whole as a search for a good measure. I like to frame the beginnings of Greek thinking as the opening up of and taking seriously of the question of whether we have or need proper measures for living and knowing. I teach Plato’s Euthyphro and Protagoras after Aristotle, the Pre-Socratics and Hesiod and then I come back to the Nicomachean Ethics at the end. I think it works well, but I’ve been trying to find ways to get students to engage more actively with the texts earlier on in the semester, especially since the Metaphysics is hard. 

I’ve also been recently inspired by colleagues at Ball State whose workshops I attended when I gave the keynote at the Conference for Pre-College Philosophical Engagement in April. Matthew Hotham and Jen Howland both ran workshops where they had students do an active exercise in order to think through some complicated concepts. Jen set up a capitalist regime where only she owned the means of production and the rest of us had to fight with one another, organize against her, get co-opted as law enforcement and snitches — what started as just a simple claim she made at the beginning articulating the terms ballooned into an intricate representation of how capital works including how it draws on principles of competition and insecurity in the community. It was very cool. I was not able to pull something like that off in the discussion of the law of non-contradiction. What I did was more like what Matt did in his group. First he asked students to define a religion. Then he gave out packets that included a slip of paper that described a religion and asked people to decide whether it really was a religion and to think about what standards they used to make that judgment. It forced students to think about why they used the standards they did and whether they should always apply.

I did something a little bit like that. I printed out ten slips of paper with various claims from the second half of Aristotle’s Metaphysics IV. These were claims that Aristotle uses as examples to say either that the person was violating the ban on contradiction or was invoking it even if they claimed to deny the need for such a ban. For example, the first one was, say something that is meaningful to you and to someone else. Aristotle says to do this and thus to differentiate oneself from a plant is to invoke the law of non-contradiction. Another one said, to avoid tripping in the well, an action that implies that you are stating that tripping in the well is bad, not not-bad. I divided students into groups and asked them to explain how the claim on their paper either violated the ban or invoked it. We started the exercise on Wednesday when they had only read the first several chapters of IV where Aristotle sets up the need for the starting-point of theoretical knowledge and then articulates it. Then students had to read the rest of the book where Aristotle says he can’t demonstrate the truth of the claim but he can refute anyone who denies it. Students then had to reference the reading to explain how their claim would violate or invoke the ban on contradiction. Read more

The Low Down on Aristotle

Heidegger famously said of Aristotle’s biography, “He lived, he worked, he died.” While many scholars take that to mean that Heidegger was dismissing the significance of biography in considering a philosopher’s work, Iain Thompson has convincingly argued that Heidegger takes for granted the significance of biography, so in the air was Werner Jaeger’s work on Aristotle’s biography, that he means not to dismiss it but to say it is not sufficient for understanding Aristotle. As when people resort to psychologizing a particular thinker instead of dealing with their work, it would be dismissive to say that we can entirely understand a thinker on the basis of things that happened to them or the whims of fortune that characterized their lives.

And yet. Perhaps we have swung too far away from caring about the specific details of the lives of those we study. I hesitate to say that the details can wholly frame our reading, but I also think it behooves us to see these thinkers as human beings: they didn’t just live, work and die; they struggled to find work they enjoyed, they loved, they fought, they studied and were disappointed; they struck out on their own. Examining the details we know and the gossip we can gather about a philosopher who has become more a marble bust than a human thinker can bring down to earth a towering colossus. Read more

Greece is Burning in More Ways than One and Its Neoliberalisms Fault

I had to fly back to Athens from Rome last night after my week at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum. I had arranged to stay at a place I found at that turned out to be the guest house of a residence in the town adjacent to the airport. Soon after I booked the place I received an email informing me that I would have to pay another €20 for a cleaning fee when I arrived. Since I was unable to cancel and had not been aware of this fee before I booked I requested that it be waived. The owner agreed. He kindly arranged an “airport shuttle,” which he said would be cheaper than a regular taxi at €15 each way. At the airport a man was waiting for me holding a sign with my name on it. He told me that the police had hassled him for stopping right outside the airport and so he had to park in the pay parking lot, which he told me cost €4. I was skeptical because I had been dropped off by a Greek colleague and I saw signs saying the first 20 minutes were free. We got to his cab and drove off. On the way he told me that he was old and tired. He also told me that the recent fires were in the area about 10-20 kilometers away.

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