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Posts from the ‘Public Philosophy’ Category

Arendt on Human Life on the Occasion of My Birthday

I’m teaching an Arendt seminar this semester and well, this is all happening, so I’ve been thinking a lot (see here) about what it means to be natural living beings and what it means to treat those beings as human. I have no interest in weighing in on the Agamben public statements, but I do think that he is thinking about the Arendtian question of the dangers of reducing human life to mere questions of survival and living. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said, “There are more important things than living,” and the thing is, he isn’t wrong. Aristotle suggests that some acts we should be unwilling to do even in the face of death (EN 1110a25-26). What Patrick is wrong about is what those things are. He thinks that workers should be willing to die for the economy, ie., the production of wealth for others.

But maybe what is worse than death is reducing the other to biological life who is here only for the production of increased life of others, or who as biological life is expendable. My husband and I have been having a long-running debate about cannibalism. My initial response to it is that I don’t really have a problem with the idea that in dire straits, one might have to eat another human. He keeps insisting that there are some things worse than death, and that we should be willing to die for the idea of the dignity of the human. This flusters me and makes me worry that I’m more invested in living than dignity. But I have watched his concern about the loss of the chance to mourn the dead that seems to be really happening in New York and around the world. And I’m reminded how fragile is the line between treating other life as for us and treating it as for itself. The line depends on the treating.

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Arendt on Being in Public and Social Distancing

Is “social distancing” a step on the road to tyranny? Arendt captures the concern of many that forced isolation and empty public spaces during the current shelter-in-place orders that most U.S. state governors have issued serves tyranny when she writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

It has frequently been observed that terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other and that, therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical governments is to bring this isolation about. (474)

Isolation seems to make tyranny possible because it allows governments to replace the shared understanding that citizens can achieve by judging a world that appears in common to all with an ideology that fits the ends of the tyrant.

Arendt explains:

Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as with the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (474)

Arendt argues in The Life of the Mind that the end of metaphysics–of the idea that a world beyond this one can be accessed, or that any access to it can be judged by one who has can stand outside this world (or that we could have access to such a judge)–requires things to appear and beings to whom the world can appear, “guarantee[ing] their reality” (19). Or as she writes in The Human Condition, “For us, appearance–something that is being seen and heard by others as well as ourselves–constitutes reality.”

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Coronavirus and Divesting from the Neoliberal Subject

I was supposed to have one of the busiest semester’s of my academic life on the conference circuit this semester. Three invited panels, one Paris workshop, one interdisciplinary conference, one Italy workshop, one development workshop. Two panels happened before coronovirus hit. The international travel has been canceled and I’m waiting on word that the last remaining events will be a no-go. If you told me at the beginning of the semester that these events would be canceled, I would have thought that the news when it came would be devastating. I’m surprised to learn that I’m relieved. In the age of neoliberalism, the freedom of the collective expectation that you will not and cannot be “investing in” the human capital that you are and that no one else can be either reminds me that the burden of the expectation is a constant weight.

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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

Wabash Chapel Talk: Nasty Snake-Filled Heads and the Workings of Ideology

(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

Ramp Hollow: Tragedy of the Commons ≠ Justification of Enclosure

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.

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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

Experts and Political Life

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

Buying a House: Debt

I’m in the process of buying a house for the first time.  This is exciting and strange.  I first started looking for a house the same week that I was teaching John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government.  I realized even more forcefully this time around how much social contract theory’s claims to belonging are tied up in relations to private property.  Witness the ongoing opposition between owners and renters documented in San Francisco in the wake of the tech boom.  Then last week, as we were signing the purchase agreement, I was explaining Marx’s analysis of capitalism to students, that wealth is produced by labor.  Fine, work harder.  But in the capitalist mode of production based as it is on private property, the worker never sees the fruit of her labor.  Private property gives the owner license to recoup the surplus value of labor, while the worker only has the right to the compensation that is socially determined is sufficient to return her to work again.  I realized I was living smack dab in the center of the contradiction between ideology and economic mode of production that Marx maintains will be the end of capital.  So being a good member of the typing left (per Jodi Dean), I decided the best mode of resistance is surely to blog about it.   This will then be the first in a series of blogs about house buying, private property, home-owning, home repair and remodeling, and town vs. country.

So, debt.

I have tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, even though I had tuition remission and a stipend from my graduate program.  I definitely made decisions in college based on money rather than on what I wanted to do because I was paying for college by myself and I couldn’t afford not to work during summers and winter breaks (like I didn’t think I could afford study abroad, and was never told otherwise, and I just didn’t know that I could take my loans to off-campus housing which could have been cheaper and things like that).  I thought Occupy’s efforts to take on debt and organize for debt forgiveness were a good idea, but not at the top of list of efforts to join.  So yeah, I read David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and I know debt is a burden and a historical rather than an intrinsic social relation, but I don’t think I ever realized how much a racket the debt industry is until this morning when I had to read through the 70-something pages related to my mortgage agreement.  Even though intellectually I know better, I thought debt was just the price you have to pay to be in the middle class.  By the end of the life of my loan, 69% of what I will have paid back will be interest on the principle.  69%!  What I realized in reading my mortgage agreement is that this situation is not just an economic necessity, borrowing with an interest rate that has 69% of what you pay back going to interest (i.e., to the bank, and I have a great rate!) could not happen without the institutional support of the government which makes the penalty for failing to pay, not just financially costly, but dire for families who are foreclosed on.  Government officials–sheriffs!–do the bank’s work of putting people who cannot pay on the street.

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