Two things happened to me today. A colleague intimated to me that reading Plato is impractical. Someone on social media told me I was failing my purposes for not thinking reasonable argument was the right approach to defeating Trump. I don’t want to single out these particular instances, because they are now commonplace. The first claim seems to be that the things we think about are too theoretical–too far removed from the world–to change the world. The second is that we are not sufficiently removed from ‘doing something,’ too physically involved in changing things, to engage in rational discourse. Neither of those points were presented to me as claims that I thought I could reasonably engage in a way that would make a difference.
It is not without some pleasure and amusement then that I reread Ed Kazarian’s post from over the weekend on how Plato himself stages the question of whether trolls should be engaged and to what extent reason can sufficiently address the political question of what is to be done. Kazarian draws a distinction between political and philosophical speech, noting that political speech is not about attempts to produce knowledge or belief, but it presupposes these in the effort to “assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse, etc.” Let’s grant that this remains the case–that political speech can presuppose a generally shared knowledge or belief–and that those who believe whatever Trump says or whatever FoxNews says are few, and that most people accept what they hear on the 6 o’clock news or from CNN, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. We begin speaking about what we should do because we share a sense of the facts on the ground. Read more
I just had one of those moments where all the things that I have previously read on a subject came together with clarity in a moment. My epiphany was that I realized that several pieces of secondary literature that had become important to me were situated in a scholarly dispute that waged in the literature about forty years ago and this contextualization helped me see what they were actually fighting over.
When I was finishing my dissertation, I would watch The Wire sometimes as I worked. One day I was slogging through and I was like, omg, I’m a philosophical detective! I’m trying to figure out how to make a case with the facts in front of me. That was my feeling this week working through arguments about prime matter. It was like, I knew the facts of the case, but the way this argument got staked out made sense of things I had been staring out for months. I think every scholarly new project involves pulling a bunch of pieces together and trying to find ways to fit them together. This is why it feels like detective work: what allows all these different pieces to add up to some coherent sense?
When I was coming through graduate school arguments weren’t even really made about prime matter, people just kind of dismissed the possibility that there was prime matter. It was like the case was solved, and everyone knew the answer so they didn’t have to prosecute their case anymore. For a long time, I didn’t need to know how the case was solved against prime matter in order to do my work. But now, it turns out, while I thought this was just a side part of my argument, it turns out the arguments about prime matter extend to and influence Aristotle’s metaphysics as a whole. So to share some of my insight, I thought I’d just list the disputes that emerge from the question of prime matter – really this is for those of you who think that disputes over prime matter are peripheral to Aristotle’s metaphysics, which in some circles it really has become. Read more
One of the most compelling arguments that William Clare Roberts makes in his new book, Marx’s Inferno: A Political Theory of Capital, is that the market dominates not only workers but commodity producers. Rejecting the moralism of socialism, which suggests that capitalists just need to be kinder and gentler, Marx argues that the subjects of capitalism are not individuals who could make more ethical decisions, but the relations of production. It is because capitalism is unable to render individuals free that capitalism dominates everyone under its purview. Read more
Having had some publishing success in my career, I’ve been rewarded with tons of requests to review article manuscripts in the last couple years. I am still not jaded enough to dislike being called on or not to need the recognition as an expert by editors such requests indicate. I appreciate having some influence on the field that this work affords. It also affords me the awareness of some common pitfalls. To avoid them, I offer this advice. Read more
This cartoon was circulated on social media last week by people concerned that the knowledge of experts is no longer respected in political matters. Last week I blogged about the hatred of democracy that I think underlies this sentiment. In November, I blogged about the “best and the brightest” political experts who were supposed to lead us into the path of peace and prosperity but instead enmired us in an unwinnable war. I’m on an expert on some things. I think that expertise should be recognized and I bristle when it is not, so I appreciate the concern that experts aren’t taken seriously. Read more
The last weekend in October of last year, I was at the former Labyrinth Bookstore in New York City where I picked up Jacques Rancière’s The Hatred of Democracy. Ten days later, the country would elect Donald Trump to the presidency. Since then (and well before), the cries against democracy have come in from many corners. Jason Brennan, philosopher at Georgetown, wrote a book Against Democracy in which he calls for an epistocracy. Andrew Sullivan argues that democracies end when they are too democratic in New York Magazine. Caleb Crain discusses the case against it in The New Yorker in the issue published the week before the election. Crain quotes the famous Winston Churchill line, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time. That line put me in mind of what Chesterton said about Christianity, that it hasn’t been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried. Or perhaps not difficult, but scandalous. This I believe is what Rancière is arguing about democracy.
Rancière makes three relevant points. First, the people are dismissed as problematic because of a process that divides democratic politics from democratic society and then denigrates all that is associated with democratic society. Second, democracy is a rule without measure, without legitimacy (which is why lottery is the most, perhaps the only true, democratic form of choosing leaders). All efforts to establish legitimacy set up a rationale for rule that make that measure and not the people as such, the source of legitimacy. Third, voting in representative governments is a ruse that gives cover to oligarchic regimes. I argue on the basis of this analysis that blaming democracy or the people in a situation that is not democratic legitimates anti-democratic policies and processes in a system that already was anti-democratic. Read more
I learned about the Feminist Epistemologies, Metaphysics, Methodologies and Science Studies (FEMMSS) 6th conference at the GLCA Women’s/Gender/Sexuality Studies workshop in Ann Arbor last May from someone who works in science studies. FEMMSS is the feminist epistemologists and metaphysicians equivalent to the Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (FEAST) conference. Since FEAST meets every other year, FEMMSS meets on the off year. What’s great about this conference is how interdisciplinary it is — people from physics, neuroscience, philosophy, anthropology, history and sociology are here. I have enjoyed the interdisciplinary conferences I’ve attended in the last several years, from HASTAC to PODNetwork to Wonder and the Natural World at IU this last June. The conversations are lively and cross-pollinating, and the intradisciplinary anxiety and intensity seem softened by the interdisciplinary engagements. Read more
One of my side projects has been thinking about how the shift from polytheism to monotheism parallels a shift from politics to philosophy in ancient thought, as I discussed here awhile back. I am particularly interested in how the dichotomy between the false and the true god only becomes possible with monotheism, just as the dichotomy of false and true knowledge only becomes relevant with the introduction of philosophy, the arena of being and knowledge, against politics, the arena of appearance and opinion. I was looking forward to what Whitmarsh could add to the discussion in his new book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. I was interested in how ancient atheism fit into this production of the true. If Assmann’s account of polytheism as a domain of shared opinion and shared gods is accepted, it would seem that denial of the existence of gods put people outside the realm of even those who had political opinions. While there is a brief discussion of Assmann (26), Whitmarsh does not attempt to think atheism within that structure. In fact, this lacuna points to a larger problem with the book: it makes the case that there were ancient atheists, but it does not lead to further insight about what that might mean for the social and political world. Instead, the point seems to be, atheism is fine because it is not new. And also, “clever people could not possibly believe in gods,” as Barbara Graziosi reads Whitmarsh.
In this post, I discuss the ways that Whitmarsh’s treatment of mythology, Plato and Socrates, and Christianity lead to flatfooted readings that fail to consider the robust complexity of Greek thinking about the gods. Read more
In his book The Price of Monotheism, published in German in 2003, Jan Assmann argues that monotheism changes the shape of religion by construing the one god as the only true god among false gods. Assmann argues that a certain kind of monotheism–revolutionary monotheism–finds its one god incompatible with any other god, because the god is not only superior but true, real, existent in a way that others are false (this is the position of the Deutero-Isaiah faction of the Old Testament). This incompatibility stands in contrast to pagan polytheism and its evolutionary monotheism which saw gods as compatible, eventually recognizing that there were many different names for the supreme god, who was a chief god, but not any more a god than the other gods. The compatibility of the pagan gods allowed them to make binding agreements with one another, which they made by swearing each to their own god(s) who was compatible with the others’ god(s). Revolutionary monotheism’s incompatibilty explains why they could not contract with other peoples. Read more