(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
Somewhere along the way, the concept of “Tragedy of the Commons” has become an argument in defense of enclosure and private property. The term first came into use by British economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833 to argue that unregulated grazing on public land could destroy the land, but it has largely entered public discourse through sustainability advocates to describe the situation of what happens when public resources such as rivers are unrestricted, everyone fishes them, and the ecosystems that fostered the fishing are destroyed. Open to everyone, people act to deplete the resources for everyone. The argument of the tragedy of the commons has been used to justify restricting access to fishing and hunting in order to protect the common lands, not unlike the kinds of decisions people have been making about the commons for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Students have come to think that “tragedy of the commons” means that only what is held in private is properly managed. It’s not just students, though. This kind of argument has been put forth as the public justification for privatizing public services and utilities including the U.S. mail service as if the resources will only be well-managed when they are managed for a profit. On that point, there is little evidence. This reading misunderstands “the commons” as that which is unregulated and open to anyone, instead as that which serves the whole community. The whole community is invested in regulating and facilitating the protection of the commons when it is the source of sustenance for the whole community. The case for how this works has been made by 2009 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economic Sciences Elinor Ostrom. 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
Starting on May 5, I embarked on a week-long social media experiment where I only engaged with women online. I did this project in conjunction with blogger and philosopher Leigh Johnson. Here’s what I posted and she posted on Facebook to announce the project.
I have long felt like social media is a man’s world. Men get all the privileges they get as men, but it feels amplified on social media. My experience of social media in general is that men can say things that get taken as definitive, while women are asked to explain and justify. Men say things about their difficulties in any particular area of their life and it is taken as an expression of their reflective capacities, but when women express such difficulties, it is taken as a moment to offer advice. I don’t have the data (a. I would love to see such work being done and b. I think the call for data in response to this expression of my experience is in a sense part of what happens to women on the internet–we call it gaslighting when experience is not to be trusted), but my experience on the interwebz is that it’s a hard place to be a woman, especially a woman in philosophy. Read more
I was listening to the DoubleX podcast this morning because I promised awhile ago to blog my reflections on it more often. They were talking about the “tampon tax” and how there’s a new “period feminism” about owning your period, and wow, isn’t it weird how menstruation seems to somehow capture men’s fears about women? I was annoyed. And I realized, I was annoyed for the same reasons from the last time I blogged about this podcast–they aren’t experts on a subject that does in fact have experts. There are people (like my new fave, Helen King) who work in gender theory who talk about how menstruation going back to the ancient Greeks captures something of the male anxiety about women’s reproductive capacities and death–you know, the whole shedding of blood bit.
I haven’t been blogging much this month because I haven’t felt like I was an expert on the various issues and ideas that I’ve considered in the last month or so (though, I gotta tell you, once I thought about how I really should blog, all of a sudden, I could think of four different posts I had to write, so I think thinking-towards-the-blog is itself productive of thinking). The political moment we live in seems to be one of a general disparagement of those who claim to be experts, and mocking the experts is something of an American pastime (consider the glee directed at Nate Silver’s fails). I might be chagrined that Trump has benefited from the decline of respect for expert knowledge, but I share this skepticism of the rising class of technocrats. When economists say we are the experts, we can fix the economy, and only we can figure it out because it is so complicated, I start to worry. Whenever anyone says, this is just a matter of the right knowledge, and the one with the right knowledge, that is the person who gets to rule, their claim is more of a political one than an epistemological one. Read more
Yesterday, Leigh Johnson posted at The Philosophers’ Cocoon in their “Real Jobs in Philosophy” series. She says something in the piece that brought me up short (honestly, she often does that). You should go read the whole thing; I want to focus on this one passage, the one under the heading “Research”:
I don’t get much time to do extended, concentrated, article-generating research—see above—though I am slowly realizing that I have exponentially more time for research, broadly-speaking, than I did at my previous position. That’s partly a consequence of not being buried in departmental business and new preps and the TT grind, but more so because I’m older now and I think about research much differently. I read a lot more and write (mostly digitally) a lot more than I used to, I do a lot of collaborative work, and I have more time to engage interests and concerns that are not primarily aimed at turning out peer-reviewed publications. I do some sort of research every day.
Johnson says she does some form of research everyday, but this research is not focused on peer-reviewed publications and it’s mostly digital. I’m going to go out on a limb and speak for the philosophical community when I say that philosophers generally don’t think that our digital work is research. Further on the limb, we don’t think this work is research, not only because we tend to think that whatever is meant for public consumption can’t be that good, but also because we tend to think public philosophy is either popularizing philosophical concepts developed in the quiet corners of the ivory tower or applying these same concepts
same to some relevant area of public life. Both popularizing and applying tend to be viewed as not as rigorous philosophy, not really philosophy itself but a possible use for philosophy.* When Johnson says she does some sort of research every day and that this research is not aiming toward peer-review academic publication, she seems to be saying that her public philosophy is itself the production of philosophical ideas, not just the application of those ideas to contemporary issues. Read more
The APA Committee on Public Philosophy hosted a panel yesterday entitled, “Navigating the Perils of Public Cyberspace: Toward New Norms of Public Engagement.” Read more
At HASTAC2015 at Michigan State in May, then-soon-to-be-new Dean of College of Arts and Letters at MSU, Chris Long, and I hatched a plan to have my students engage his book, Socratic and Platonic Political Philosophy (Cambridge 2014). Students would read the book online and engage the digital platform Cambridge set up to encourage a living relationship to the text. As a follow up and to enhance the dialogical engagement, Long agreed to videoconference into class. This week, we did it. Read more
In Pensees, Blaise Pascal writes:
Justice, Force.—It is just that what is just be followed; it is necessary that what is strongest be followed. Justice without force is impotent; force without justice is tyrannical. Justice without force is contradicted, because there are always bad people; force without justice stands accused. So justice and force must be put together; and to do so make what is just, strong and what is strong, just.
Justice is subject to dispute; force is easy to recognize and is indisputable. And so one could not give force to justice, because force contradicted justice, and said that it is was unjust, and said that it was force that was just. And thus, not being able to make what is just, strong, one made what is strong, just.
The week that Sandra Bland died in police custody, I was working through this passage that Derrida quotes in The Beast and the Sovereign with friends, colleagues and students in Italy. Today, two days after another young black man was shot in Ferguson, MO, I have been recalling this passage. Pascal recognizes our problem: we need justice to have force, but if all we have is force, there will be no justice. What is the just way of giving force to justice? Read more