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Posts from the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Facebook and the Eclipse of Political Solutions

This morning Facebook’s Oversight Board upheld Facebook’s ban on Donald Trump. Yesterday, NPR’s Rachel Martin wondered about how much control social media should have over free speech. With no political efforts to censure Trump, the consequences for his near treasonous speech of January 6 are left to be doled out by private corporations. This situation, I argue, is where the long-developing eclipse of politics in favor of private solutions has led us. If neoliberalism is the marketization of everything, the effort to remove decisions of public concern from public domains into private ones, then the situation in which social media companies have more power over managing the dangerous speech of politicians than the public domain is its logical conclusion.

Even if you are happy with this decision, we should sound the alarms. Not the alarm that Facebook has too much control, though it does. Twitter and Facebook are totally within their rights to ban people from their platforms. They are private companies. That is the problem. Social media is a public utility, and we treat it as such, and then complain that it is run like a private company. But social media companies are private companies. If we want them to be run in such a way that serves the public good, we should nationalize them. Government, not private companies, is constrained by the First Amendment to “make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” If the main site of speech has become private companies, and it seems that companies have more say of speech than the government, then we should really rethink whether those sites of free speech should be private.

Neoliberalism has sapped us of the desire to insist on political solutions and has led us to think that private corporations need to be made to do the right thing by their $130 million-supported oversight boards, rather than by governmental power driven by political pressure. This is wrong-headed. We should not ask private companies to regulate themselves. We should not find satisfaction in private companies punishing those who public officials lack the political will to punish. We should insist on political reckonings.

Already conservatives are bemoaning that Facebook is interfering in the 2024 election. And indeed, Facebook, along with Twitter, seems like the only organization holding Trump accountable. My point is that our satisfaction with this holding accountable is evidence of how much we have ceded the responsibilities of political life to private corporations. We should not find this satisfactory. Not because it wasn’t the right decision, but because the accountability should be a matter of political reckoning. Let’s not cede that space.

Augustine and the Cruel Theology of Absolving God

Why is Augustine so cruel? His argument for free will rests on absolving God of responsibility for evil in the world, ultimately for the suffering of evil that is occurring around him, and to make the case, Augustine again and again notes that God punishes but God punishes justly and so God cannot be responsible for the suffering caused.

I have taught Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will so many many times. I used to teach it in every introductory course because it was such a fitting transition between ancient thinking and modern thinking. It stages Descartes’ Meditations nicely since many of his arguments can be found in inchoate form in Augustine, and it shows precisely that to which Nietzsche is responding in On the Genealogy of Morals. I’m teaching it now in a course on medieval philosophy. It’s been some time since I taught it. In the meantime, I’ve encountered alternative possible readings of the sacred texts upon which Christianity is based in the work of people like Ted Jennings who makes the case that Christianity offers a political philosophy of exposing the injustice of empire by exposing the cruelty at the heart of its efforts at law and order (Transforming Atonement, 221). Adam Kotsko similarly makes a case in The Prince of Darkness for the genealogy of the devil who went from being associated with empire by those who were oppressed to being associated with the rabble-rousers once Christianity becomes the empire. When this happens, as Jennings shows, God is supposed to be on the side of systems of domination and division, “the one who condemns and afflicts with suffering and death” (21).

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How Ideas Circulate. Online. In Philosophy: Remarks and Suggestions for the APA Blog Session

The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power: contrary to a myth whose history and functions would repay further study, truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its régime of truth, its ‘general polities’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true. –Foucault, “Truth and Power,” in Power / Knowledge, 131

Any conversation about the circulation of ideas online has to understand the material power at work in how ideas circulate, whose ideas circulate without obstacles and whose ideas encounter obstacles. Moreover, this conversation has to recognize that the circulation of ideas involves material questions about who holds what positions where and who is able to set the agenda for what areas of philosophy should be covered in departments and who should be considered worthy for filling those lines, who should be read, who should be cited, who should be appointed editor of prestigious journals, which journals should be considered prestigious, and so on.

A little more than five years ago there was a robust conversation online about how the philosoblogosphere had influenced the material circumstances of what is considered good philosophy in the United States. Ben Alpers the historian of ideas gathers some of the reflections on the sociology of philosophy, concentrating on the way that online voices and rankings amplified particular views of what philosophy is in a way that influenced what kind of philosophy was considered more or less rigorous. In particular, I’m thinking about how continental philosophy programs were excluded from early rankings and how those rankings centered analytic philosophy and analytic approaches to the history of philosophy, but also the way that feminist philosophies and post-colonial philosophies and critical philosophies of race were sidelined.

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Playing with Plato: Teaching with Games

I’m teaching a senior seminar on Plato’s Republic this semester. One skill I have been focusing on all semester is close reading. I have students do several short assignments in which they have to offer close readings of the text. But in our class discussions, conversations tends to become more general and less tethered to specifics of the text. I want students to make their claims rooted in the text and to see that arguments over how to interpret are a key part of the philosophical work in the history of philosophy.

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Plato’s Divided City and the Police

This morning, the family of Breonna Taylor held a news conference in which they expressed their anger and frustration with Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron’s grand jury investigation that ended with charges for only of the officers involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor. Taylor was shot as the result of a botched drug raid through a no-knock warrant when officers entered the wrong apartment. Taylor’s boyfriend shot thinking that the apartment was being burglarized. One officer involved, Brett Hankison, was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment for bullets that went into another apartment. The facts of the case are not disputed. No drugs were found in Taylor’s apartment.

At the press conference, Bianca Austin, Taylor’s sister, said, “What [Daniel Cameron] helped me realize is that it will always be us against them. That we are never safe.”

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Athlete, Strengthen Thyself! Making the (Running) Body

I am in my tenth week of an intens(iv)e training program to run a half marathon in November. Perhaps running the race is wishful thinking, but the training is keeping me focused during the pandemic. The training is based on Stacy Sims’ book, Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to your Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life.

Sims’ claim based on her own research as an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist is that people who have more estrogen and progesterone and other hormones we have traditionally called “female” cannot be trained as small men as they have been for decades. During the high hormone phase of the menstrual cycle for those who menstruate, the body has a harder time taking up protein. If you don’t get significant protein within 30 minutes of a workout, the body recovers by taking protein out of muscles — basically eating the muscles instead of building them. In addition to the different needs brought about by different hormones, the different physiology, specifically for example broad pelvic bones, lead to less stability in the knees and thus more of a likelihood to be knock-kneed — and in running to have less stability and a tendency for knees to collapse in — unless glutes are significantly strengthened. Even really strong women athletes can have strong quadriceps and still buckle their knees when they jump if they aren’t working on building all three gluteus muscles.

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What’s Really Conservative about References to Nature

The first references to nature or physis in Athens* were made by those supporting aristocratic partisans against their perception of a rigid democratic establishment in the 420s BCE. Nomos was considered the embodiment of popular sovereignty.[1] Before physis, “to eon” or just “that which is” or easier “the fact” was opposed to nomos. The sophists chiefly served–for a fee–the aristocratic youth whose parents’ wealth and good birth had ceased to give them the power to which they thought they should be entitled. The distinction the sophists offer between physis and nomos justifies the aristocratic claim against entrenched democratic interests.

Physis was associated with one’s birth, so it allowed the aristocrats to associate their own power with their birth, and thus with physis. The aristocrats thought that by virtue of their birth they had a claim to rule. The sophists give them the language of physis to justify this claim through birth, which points to ways that the reference to physis in its beginnings was in the service of a kind of eugenics, those of better birth were those whose rule was more natural. Nature itself was of those who were better born. To be better born was to be on the side of nature. From that claim, the oligarchic interests take up the sophistic view that physis is just what is against the nomos or convention that changes and is thus without ground–a charge familiar to us as a criticism of democratic approaches to justice from Plato. If those who are better born whose claim to rule is natural, and returning to the ancient customs wherein the well-born ruled, then nature is just what had always been, and the changes wrought by the increasingly democratic regimes were suspect. Nature gets put on the side of “things remaining the same,” and convention on the side of constant change and radical disruptive power of the commoners. The sophists introduce arguments that further put physis on the side of intelligence against wealth. Those who newly make wealth still do not have the intelligence that comes with being well-born.

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Serene Khader’s Decolonizing Universalism: A Transnational Feminist Ethic: Comment at the Eastern APA

These comments were originally presented at the Eastern American Philosophical Association in Philadelphia on January 9, 2020 at the satellite meeting of the Society for Philosophy in the Contemporary World.

I appreciate this book and am glad to have it in the world. Serene Khader canvasses a breadth of debates of multicultural and transnational feminism within the field. She frames possible objections and offers responses in many cases just as the reader begins to consider that objection and in other places where the raising of the objection clarifies Khader’s position. The book is highly readable both for non-academics and technically sophisticated for scholars. I taught the book in my feminist philosophy course that focused on transnational feminism this past semester and it became a touchstone for debates throughout the course. Khader offers nuanced frameworks that aim to be effective in on the ground transnational feminist activism. I have now read and reread this book three or four times and I can say that the initial objections have melted away as I have continued to sit with it, but I think there is still something in my initial concerns that I now think are about whether universalism can be decolonized within a liberal framework. Khader herself points to these questions. In conclusion, I’ll ask whether an alternative notion of universalism in a Marxist or post-Marxist vein is what Khader’s project invites.

I would sum up my remarks with four questions:

  1. Who is the book for?
  2. What work does the sense of universalism that Khader aims to recover do?
  3. What is the status of this account as non-ideal theory?
  4. Can universalism be decolonized within a liberal framework?
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Jo Walton’s The Just City

In some ways Walton really captures the sense in which the point of philosophy is to engage in a life of questioning and examining and dialectically following the conversation where it leads. There are insights into Plato and into philosophy to be found here. It isn't a substitute for reading Plato's Republic, but perhaps the novel--like good public philosophy--could be an on-ramp.

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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