Tomorrow I leave for a month in Europe. I feel bad because everything seems to be going poorly and I’m leaving. Maybe I just need to be on the road, not checking the news and social media all the time, to come back for a better fight. I am spending the first week thinking and talking about ancient pedagogy in Athens with my GLCA ancient philosophy collaborators and a colleague at the American College of Greece, then a couple weeks bouncing around southern Europe with some friends, and then a week at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum in Italy, talking about Aristotle.
In the midst of everything going on, I’ve been thinking about why Plato and Aristotle matter right now, or ever. Miranda Pilipchuk recently wrote about the need to decolonize the canon where she talks about studying Plato and Aristotle for the sake of understanding the tradition without denying their contribution to marginalizing women and people of color in the field. She’s right. But I’m also interested in reading these philosophers against the way the tradition has read them to marginalize these folks, reading Plato in conversation with Baldwin, for example, or Aristotle against various traditions that use references to nature to exclude or oppress those deemed more natural than rational.
But lately I’ve also been thinking about the practices of reading as a practice for just community. Given the various aporiae Plato investigates and articulates concerning teaching and learning virtue, it would seem almost impossible to learn virtue from another. Virtue is learned not as a set of propositions. One cannot know before she knows what virtue is whether the person teaching virtue and justice knows it. The solution seems to be that each person needs to investigate for themselves and not take anyone else’s view without examining it and themselves carefully. Reading Plato’s dialogues themselves seems like a practice in this kind of learning. Jill Frank argues in Poetic Justice that reading Plato is a democratic practice, that Plato doesn’t present his city or its education or his critique of poets in order for the reader to take them in hand as truth. This makes sense given the difficulties he raises across the corpus about learning virtue. Instead, Plato has Socrates present these accounts for the reader to grapple with, to discern and investigate context and connections and to be changed by the investigation. It seems that the engagement with the text also prepares us to really listen to the calls of justice from others, and to see the difference between the account that looks good and the account that is good, between the desire for power for power’s sake and the desire for power to improve the world.
So yes, that’s me, again with Plato and Aristotle.
One of my favorite yoga teachers likes to say after particularly difficult poses in Bikram, have no reaction, just stand still. I’ve been thinking about how “having no reaction” seems like good Stoic practice for dealing with various frustrations in academic publishing.
A couple days ago I received a rejection from a top-tier journal on a paper that I’m pretty excited about. The reviewer said that my paper does not talk about one particular thing that everyone who writes on x has to talk about and that my lens for interpretation is not the useful key that I think it is. I do not think that x is that important to my reading or even really to the questions I am addressing and so I have no interest in talking about it. I do think my lens is a useful key. As I was reading the review, at first, I felt my blood beginning to rise. Then, my yoga teacher’s mantra occurred to me: have no reaction. I began to think about what it might mean to consider this response as information that the field gives about what it is like, but that positive or negative feelings do not need to be had in response to that information. Just stand still.
Everyone who knows me knows that I am not a Stoic. I have far too many opinions to be a Stoic. I usually so quickly go to the judgment that I have been wronged with these kinds of rejections. Sometimes, that’s true. More often than not, I go to the place of thinking that rejection is a personal judgment. It can feel like that. I think sometimes recognizing how rejections are unfair motivates us to raise important questions. I think that we need to get angry and organize to change the field, especially to become less narrow in its thinking about how publishing decisions are made. I’m working on that too. Read more
(A group of student leaders on campus at Wabash organize a weekly talk by a member of the Wabash community. This is a transcript of the talk I gave this morning.)
As a philosopher, one thing I like to think about is how our ideas about the world affect the way we live in the world. Today I want to talk about how our ways of thinking about how things are variously affect the ability of different people from different groups to thrive. I want to talk specifically about how we use the concept of “natural” to describe the ways we experience the world. We tend to describe things as natural, as “just being that way,” as the way things just happen to be with no input or interference from human beings, when we are unaware of the history of how they came to be that way. That move whereby what was formed for political and social reasons appears as natural is what we call ideology.
As a philosopher, I want to own some responsibility for this, since, as Nietzsche says, “Lack of a historical sense is the original error of all philosophers.”
To correct this error, I want to first back up a little bit and think historically about how the turn to nature has been used as a justification for ways of organizing the world. Leo Strauss explains the historical turn to a concept of nature as a turn to philosophizing. As he puts it, as long as everyone seems to do what you do, you do not prompt the question, is that right? It’s right because it seems like the only way. It is right because it has always been done that way. It is right because it is what everyone you know does. But when you leave your people and you encounter other people who do things differently, you begin to ask whether what your people do is right. Like when you are a kid like I was in a big family where we always sat down together for dinner every night and you think every family sits down for dinner every night until you go to your friends’ house and they have dinner in front of the television and you go home and ask why you have to eat dinner together and your mother tells you it’s because you don’t have a television. Not having a television also seemed right because it was what my family did. Like taking vacations in the mountains instead of at the beach. Read more
In Aristotle’s account of how a person becomes virtuous, he argues that a virtuous action is done in the way a virtuous person would do it. This account often appears circular to those who first encounter it, but I would suggest it is less circular than spiral. The person who aspires to virtue looks to the person further around the spiral who is already virtuous in order to consider how to be virtuous. By looking at the virtuous person as the model, they become a virtuous model themselves for the next person. Some readers of Plato argue that Plato presents a view of goodness as imitation. One becomes virtuous by participating in, which is to say, imitating the Forms of virtue, of Justice, of Courage, of Wisdom.
On Aristotle’s account, the virtuous person serves as a model for how the apprentice virtuous person should be, but that model is fundamentally about learning to make the judgment in a virtuous way out of their own character. The judgment in the process shifts from, what would that person do to what would I do. A person has become the phronimos, or the one of good judgment, when they are able to make their own judgments without a model, that is, when they become a model, not by having replicated the previous model, but by uniquely being able to determine what the bulls’ eye of virtuous living would be. Read more
This semester I am teaching a course I’m calling “Thinking with Arendt.” The question of the course follows from Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: if failing to think enables us to do great evil, what is it about thinking that leads us to live well? A corollary of this question is what are the ways that we think about other people that allow us to dehumanize them to the point where we can justify actively killing them or letting them go to their deaths? I’ve been teaching Eichmann as discussions about US immigration policy and border security are underway ahead of a deadline today for funding the federal government and I’m finding that second question particularly pressing.
First, I should say that it continues to boggle my mind that people in the interior of the United States talk about the need for a border wall, when there IS A BORDER WALL at much of the parts of the border that can be walled. Above is a photograph of part of the wall at the Hidalgo County Pumphouse that I took when I was living in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. The wall purposefully does not cover the whole border because it is meant to funnel people crossing to places where the border patrol can focus. The existence of the wall in the face of the discussions of it demonstrate the extent to which people in the interior are far removed from the reality of the border. People who live at the border don’t want a wall and they have long been mad about the way the current wall has destroyed ecosystems and public spaces. Read more
One way that Spinoza seems to be clearly drawing on the Stoics is in terms of recognizing that we are sorrowful about events because we suppose that we have some power to make them otherwise when we do not. The Stoics counsel us to seek to understand causes so that we might understand what outcomes we can affect and which we cannot, what aspects of the world we can control and which we cannot, to focus on those that we can and to recognize that those we cannot are just part of the order of things and to accept them accordingly.
The problem I was realizing as I was getting myself organized for the new semester and setting myself some intentions for the semester–thinking about how not to worry about things that are out of my control and to only work on those that were within my control–is that anxiety comes from not being able to know which is which. I can understand why the Serenity Prayer ends with a request for wisdom to know the difference between the things that we can change and the things that we cannot. My entire anxious life is rooted in wondering if I did something that adversely affected some situation that I might otherwise have thought I had no control over or whether I should have done something in order to bring about some desired goal that I might have thought was not in my control.
Seneca writes that nothing happens to the wise man contrary to his expectations because he recognizes when his efforts can be thwarted. But that would really seem to be all the time, which is to suggest that one’s plans may be in her control but the success of them always depends on the order of the nature and fate. For the Stoics, the actions that we control are themselves part of a larger order of nature. So our control is even then in affirming them as part of that order. The good Stoic then tries to fit into that order of what will be. Here it seems that the Stoic understanding of our action involves a sense of time that sees the action we contemplate as something that already fits within the order of the universe. The wise man acts in a way that knowing the causes of the universe can conform to its order. Such a way of acting seems to involve that we already know how our action fit into the universe. Our problem is that we cannot yet understand the causes of what has not yet happened. I think this is what Arendt means by the newness of action, and why Kant makes the responsibility to the duty and not the outcome, and yet it is the outcome that we want to achieve. This is why we can never fully understand the causes and as a consequence can never fully know what is in our control and what is not in our control. What is not in our power it would seem is the wisdom to tell the difference.
I made two New Year’s Resolutions. I’m not going to tell you what they were. Mostly because I don’t want you to judge me. I will say that one was about not doing something and one was about starting a new practice. Today is January 14. I have kept up the new practice. I was able not to do the other thing for six days. I haven’t given up on it. But I also didn’t keep it. I’m trying not to judge myself, but I think it’s pretty clear that the sheen of the resolution has worn off–it loses its ability to inspire once it has been broken.
We all know that resolutions don’t work. They don’t really change our behavior. I don’t usually make them — maybe one out of every three years I make some resolutions. And yet, there’s something so attractive about the idea that a new year can bring a new you. Just resolving that things will be different can make them so. Much of the critique of New Year’s resolutions amount to a critique of willpower as an effective way to change our lives. We need to engage in practices and projects because willing ourselves to be different does not work. Read more
Last semester, I ended the last three weeks of my ancient philosophy course on the Stoics. I began the course with Aristotle’s first line from the Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire to know.” The entire course unpacked this sentence and its multiple possibilities. What does it mean for nature to direct our desire to know? How is human nature a matter of knowing? How does knowledge function as a measure of ourselves and of the world? How does knowledge depend on desire? To what extent and in what ways are we responsible for becoming who we are, for fulfilling or not fulfilling our nature? I was happily surprised to find the Stoics a fitting conclusion to these conversations, especially because of the way they think of the order of nature itself as fate, and human virtue as a matter of affirming this order or fate.
The Stoics offered a new possibility for understanding Aristotle’s famous opening line in a way that shows the intimacy between nature, fate and freedom or responsibility for the Greeks. This intimacy is something that is very difficult for Aristotle to separate. The Stoics were students of Zeno of Citium but they were clearly drawing from both Plato and Aristotle. It isn’t much of a stretch then to offer a Stoic interpretation of Aristotle’s anthropology and ethics. When Aristotle says that all men by nature desire to know, the Stoic interpretation would be that human beings fit into the order of the cosmos as knowing beings. They fulfill that order when they fulfill their nature as knowing beings. They are responsible to become the kinds of beings who affirm the order of the cosmos. Human virtue consists in managing the pains and pleasures of the world so that they do not detract but support their role in the order of the cosmos. Human vice is giving in to impulses that detract from the order of the cosmos. Aristotle describes choice as that which leads to actions wherein our desire is guided by reason. Choosing is affirming the rational order of what is. Read more
This past fall I taught the philosophy senior seminar on Plato and Baldwin. I had several reasons for putting these thinkers together. One, I wanted students to see the ways that knowing oneself, individually and collectively, remains of pressing importance for producing a just world. I wanted students to see the philosophical aporiae involved in distinguishing between a true account and an ideology–an account propogated for the sake of power. I wanted them to think about how difficult it is to distinguish the two and how dangerous it is to assume the distinction is clear. I wanted them to think about how philosophers make claims to power by assuming they can make this distinction easily. I wanted them to think about how our own investments in being right make it difficult for us to change our minds. And finally, I wanted them to consider what the implications of that difficulty are for the status of our own self-evaluation. I also wanted students to think about both the individual and the collective process of self-examination, as Plato has Socrates asks of Athenians and of Athens. Read more
I volunteered to review this book for a scholarly review site in a field that is adjacent to mine. I was asked to rewrite it because it did not accord with the standard ways of speaking about Aristotle. I pulled the review and am publishing it here. I mention this background because I think it is worth noting how deep a hold the traditional approaches to Aristotle have. This hold makes people assume there is no more interpretation to be done on Aristotle. It makes some scholars resistant to new and fruitful approaches that recover Aristotle from scholastic approaches. It makes them assume that logic is clearly and obviously distinct from ontology and ethics. Aygün offers a careful reading of the text to challenge this approach to Aristotle and by doing so contributes to the growing scholarship that unsettles a tradition that takes these questions to be settled.
Aygün, Ömer. The Middle Included: Logos in Aristotle. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016. xv, 272 p. $34.95 (pb). ISBN 9780810134003
It is a difficult and remarkable task to say something new about the whole of Aristotle’s philosophy. Such is the project Ömer Aygün undertakes in The Middle Included: Logos in Aristotle to argue that Aristotle is not a thinker of the excluded but the included middle. Aristotle is traditionally understood as the father of logic based on his articulation of the law of non-contradiction. The law of non-contradiction is both a logical and an ontological principle because Aristotle thinks that what is must be knowable, and insofar as it is knowable, it follows the principles of knowledge. The law of non-contradiction, that the same thing cannot be said to be and not be of the same thing in the same respect at the same time, is the most reliable principle of knowledge for Aristotle. But it is also a principle of being because it is not just that it cannot be said, but the same thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way in a subject. The middle is excluded because if something is said to be of a thing there is no middle position wherein it could also be said not to be. The middle is excluded because what is and what is not must be held apart.
Aygün offers a novel interpretation of this law by arguing that logos puts into relation that which is opposed and hence, is the middle that has traditionally been thought to be excluded. Logos, Aygün argues, joins what is opposed—contraries–without reducing or sublating what is opposed. The traditional language of Aristotelian scholarship understands logos in terms of logic as a formal system or speech as a mechanism for communicating personal thoughts to another. This language distances the contemporary reader from the richness of Aristotle’s language that shows the human being to be formed by logos in a way that conceives of the human as a being that draws the multiplicity of the world into a unity. The apparent strangeness of Aygün’s language is necessitated by the demand to make what we suppose is obvious in Aristotle become a question again. His account of logos makes the human being “the middle included,” because, through logos, which he describes as a mediation, a synthesis, and a stretching, the human being joins together the difference and multiplicity that constitutes the world.